Pictures on Exhibition at a Class Reunion – Fictionalized Nonfiction in Three Parts: Part I

  1. The Playwright

Chuck Folger sidles up to me, and I recognize him immediately. Bodies shift and reconfigure, features sag, and hair goes to gray or white, but eyes don’t change. His are still the same crystal blue they were in high school, still twinkling brightly like they’re hiding a funny secret or like they’re made of glass and could break if he blinks too hard. We hardly spoke in high school, but I was aware of him, was amused by him, was intrigued that anyone could have such true blue eyes.images

“Do you ever see her?” He asks, as though continuing a conversation we’ve been having all along, despite the fact I haven’t seen him in fifty years.

“See whom, Chuck?”

“Our Laila. The playwright. I saw her in an interview on television,” he says. “I thought of you. You live in New York City. You must see her sometimes.”

“I do,” I say, thinking that my being in touch with this woman is not simply because I am in New York City, where she is, and that we are from the same small town in upstate New York. It’s a complicated story, and I hope he won’t ask.

He doesn’t.

“Yeah, I thought you might. I always liked her. In high school. I thought she was pretty. Did you know her then?”

Chuck’s accent sounds Canadian. I ask him if his folks, like many in the logging town just up the road on Route 3, might be originally from somewhere near Montreal, but he explains that actually it was his mother who gave him the accent. His dad descended from French Canadians, but they’d been local for generations.

Nope. It was his mom. “She was Onondaga, you know, lived on the res up in Hogansburg. The elders taught her French and then sent her to school outside of Montreal, where the sisters taught her English.”

“I wish Laila were here now, were at the reunion. I’d like to tell her I saw her on television. Did you know her back then?”

Before I can reply, Ronnie Himmelstein, says, “Of course she knew her in high school.”

Ron left our town to go to a Division I university and then returned to teach in the local junior college, chimes in. Ron is dapper, commands attention afforded local celebrity. . . he writes a column for the local daily paper. “The four of us founded the literary magazine. We two and Laila and Pierce Bogart.”

No one reacts to the name Pierce Bogart. He’s long since left and been forgotten. Instead, Jake Ferucci looks up from his sixth or eighth beer to say, “I never read the magazine, but I sure did love that Laila. I’d sit in French class and just look at her. . . . “ His voice trails off. Then he adds, dreamily, “You understand why I never learned a word of French? Every French word was lost in the crazy screams in my head.”

“Screams, Jake?” I ask.

“Just fear,” he says. “I wanted to ask her out. But I was afraid. She’d never have gone out with me.

“I bet you’re wrong, John,” sighs Polly Paget, who’s still as lithe and lean as she was on the ski hill in 1965, still as limber as when cheering on the football field. “I would have. You never asked.”

“You mean I missed an opportunity?” Jake whines.

“Big time,” Polly snuffs. “We all wanted you.”

Jake groans and guzzles his beer. The past tense has not eluded him.


Adieu and Fare Thee Well

The reunion is over. All Ninety-two revelers – members of the Saranac Lake High School and St. Pius X Classes of 1965 and their companions – who gathered for a weekend of reminiscence and re-acquaintance, have said goodbye and have gone back to whatever they were doing before. But we are changed, strengthened by the experience.


The Voices and the Laughter. Photo by Olivia Rauss

It was a funny scene to watch ourselves when we first arrived. There were no prompts, no pictures of our former selves dangling from our necks, so we had to look into one another’s eyes, watch for gestures, listen carefully for vocal patterns to identify who was who and where we fit together. But once we did, oh how tightly we cleaved!


John Pedroni, Robert Waite and Irene Walker sidle back to 1965 in song. Photo by Olivia Rauss.

We are a remarkable group. Un-clique-ish, without isolationist tendencies, we bonded to one another for the three days we visited – Thursday night dinner in a restaurant that was nonexistent when we lived there, Friday night dancing at the Moose Hall, Saturday morning gathering at our high school no longer a high school for a tour and a video journey through our town, Saturday afternoon attendance at the homecoming football game, and Saturday night feasting and blending our voices with the karaoke in songs we sang as youngsters. It was glorious.


St. Pius X and SLHS Cheerleaders. Photo by Olivia Rauss.


Sharing a special remembrance of a gone but not forgotten classmate with the children he left behind. . . . Photo by Olivia Rauss

But it was just a reunion, nothing really extraordinary about that. Classes gather every year to do what we did in Saranac Lake last weekend. So why do we think we’re so special?

Every time we got quiet, someone would comment on the thing about us that is remarkable. Here we were, fifty years later, a single town of kids whose elders sought to keep us apart for whatever reasons they could conjure by dividing us into two high schools, and despite the fact that we didn’t grow up dancing with one another, playing football on one another’s teams, playing or singing music together, here we were in our dotage clinging to one another.

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The Planning Committee. Photo by Olivia Rauss

Standing at the dais, co-emceeing the event, I looked around the room, and I could not see a single table segregated by school. Somehow, past the separation, past our years apart, we have become a family, and when we re-convene, when we come together to celebrate our past and lean in against our diminishing future, we do it as a single entity. We are a family of a sort.

I don’t know many schools whose members return to the kind of communion we share. Most people speak of having been with the people they were friends with in school, of being just as isolated from the rest as they felt as teenagers. But we hale and hearty children of Saranac Lake, at least those of us in the Class of ’65, are cut from a special cloth that binds us together with emotional Velcro.


Old Friends, Final Breakfast of the Reunion. Photo by Olivia Rauss.


Sisters. Photo by Olivia Rauss.

What gratitude I have for being part of that little universe. What immeasurable joy I take in being one of them, despite the enormous feeling of disconnect I wrapped myself in as a teenager. I am so glad I lived long enough to shed that mantle and accept this new one, the cloak of my classmates’ love.

A Simple Thank You, Home Town

Impossible as it seems, it’s now been fifty and a half years since I graduated from Saranac Lake High School,

6f51c8fdd1c0f0966b8bbbab55dd572fin Saranac Lake, NY. . . fifty and a half years dominated by faraway places, varied experiences, multi-hued cultures. Returning for the reunion next weekend, with the prospect of revisiting people I saw nearly every day of my life from the time I turned 9 until shortly after my 17th birthday, I am flooded with nostalgia, and that nostalgia reminds me of something I have never shared with my hometown: My deep, warm gratitude.

My family – the Swetts – arrived in Saranac Lake, at the end of the third day of the new year in 1957, in a small caravan, in the dead of night, at the height of a blizzard.

My father drove a truck loaded with furniture and appliances, with my brother David and my sister Helen sitting next to him in the cab, while my mother, who was 8 ½ months pregnant, drove the family car, loaded with clothes and household items, leaving barely enough room for me on the passenger side of the front seat, where I was stationed with orders to hold onto my over-excited 15-month-old brother Alfred.

Actually, I hardly held him. I spent most of our eight-hour journey from Longmeadow, Massachusetts, grasping at him as he maintained perpetual motion, climbing me, attempting to sit on mom’s non-existent lap, rolling the windows down and wailing to be allowed out of the car. We drove slowly over the snowy country roads – the interstates were rude forerunners of what they are today – and he did not settle down until after we had stopped to eat at a diner in Rutledge, Vermont, when he fell asleep in my arms. For the last two hours of the trip, I was in increasing pain, terrified to move or to do anything more strenuous than lightly breathe, lest my nightmare be reawakened.

The falling snow became blinding just as we reached the village, and when we got to at the foot of the mile-long hill that would take us to our rented home atop Rockledge Road, we stopped to reconnoiter and emerged from the cars, stiff and sore and, immediately, most horribly cold.   Colder than any of us had ever been before.

Years later, my mother would regularly quip, “Yes, living in Saranac Lake, we have two seasons: winter and the 4th of July.” Which may have been hyperbole, but it rings true as I remember that moment.

Standing there where East Pine and Pine Streets meet, getting our first feel of our new home, all I could think was that we couldn’t live there. It was just too, too cold.

Truth is – and you can look this up – the temperatures officially reached 36o below zero that night, and WNBZ Radio reported the next morning that in our corner of the town, high on our hill overlooking Moody Pond in the shadow of venerable Mount Baker, it was actually as much as ten degrees colder than the official report.90387775

The relief of being outdoors after what seemed like endless hours’ sitting in a cramped, smelly vehicle, wore off in an instant. What lay ahead felt daunting. The hill was icy, and the snow was relentless; in order to assess the best way to navigate his way up the hill, Dad had to walk up the hill a ways to find a route in, and still he wasn’t sure what surrounded him. Both vehicles’ motors cranked noisily, struggling to stay alive, and I could feel my toes and fingers, lips and nose separating themselves from my body.

My father, holding my barefoot 3-year-old sister Helen in his arms, decided to look in the glove compartment for a flashlight and absent-mindedly put the little girl down in the snow. She shrieked, and I picked her up and put her back in the car, all the time fighting back tears of absolute terror.

Drained from the trip and weary of crying children, my mother looked at me and shook her head disparagingly. Reading my expression, she said, “It’ll be all right. You’ll learn to ski. You’ll wear winter clothing. We will be fine.” And with that she got back into the driver’s seat and waited for my father to lead the way to the end of our journey at the top of the driveway.

Sure enough, on the second day in our new house, because we were still out of school for winter vacation, we all took a break from the unpacking and returned to that long, steep road, this time with a pair of skis Mom had found in the basement. They were old style wooden skis with leather bindings, which required no special boots. “Today,” she had announced at breakfast. “You will have your first ski lesson.” The other kids were delighted to engage in a new sport, but I was more interested to know where she had learned such a thing. And I couldn’t help noticing that at the moment she made the announcement, she glowed with a youthful exuberance I hardly recognized.

“How do you know how to ski, Mommy?” I asked her.

“I skied a lot in my childhood. A lot.”

“In Vienna?” I asked incredulously.

“Not exactly,” she replied. “But not far away. In the Alps, a place very much like where we are now.

We took turns skiing down the hill, hiking back up, laughing yelling to one another across the white silence. At some point, a woman emerged from a house in the middle of the hill. She walked up to my mother, and they began to talk, and in a few minutes, they embraced and lapsed into German. “Children,” my mother called excitedly. “Come met our neighbor Mrs. Koop.”14-3143.1L

The Koops, who owned Temmings Jewelry, were from Switzerland; they spoke a German dialect I had a very hard time understanding, but my mother was clearly in her element. She had found a home. Which made the town feel homey to us as well. By the end of the day we had met most of the people on Rockledge Road; Bibbe Shapiro and I established a bond: we both loved theater.

The following month, in the building that now houses the administrative offices of North Country Community College, my mother gave birth to Sarah, the first of my three siblings born in Saranac Lake General Hospital. We watched the Winter Carnival fireworks from the hospital parking lot along with fellow townspeople, who were there either to visit hospitalized relatives and friends or to watch the spectacle from a distance. No one treated us as outsiders. We felt like locals.

School was a difficult adjustment, but in spring, I had a fight on the railroad tracks with Irene Walker, and that established me as an appropriate friend. The Whitson brothers let me cut through their path when I walked down to meet her to throw stones into Moody Pond, and through girl scouts, I met Suzy Hanks and Gail Gallagher. As members at the Methodist Church, we became part of the community. When John Pedroni soaked my blonde braids in black India ink, I wasn’t even angry because it was clear that what had transpired was more an act of initiation and welcome than anything else.

Clearly, as cold as the winter might be, the people of this little town were some of the warmest on earth.

We became well known in certain sectors of the community. Indeed, there was no missing us. Every Sunday, for example, with the consistency of a Swiss train, we arrived at the First United Methodist Church; but unlike that Swiss train, we were never on time. It was our habit to arrive ten to fifteen minutes after the minister made his welcoming address, just as the choir was putting away hymnals, the congregation rifling through prayer books looking for the Apostles Creed, and our entrance was grand. Eventually, there were nine of us, and we were never inconspicuous, marching down the aisle behind my parents like Biblical offspring – Carla, David, Helen, Alfred, Elizabeth and John.

Then, one snowy day in 1963, I was waiting for my mother to retrieve me from a singing lesson in Lake Clear when Marion Greibsch drove up instead. “Your mother’s been in a bit of an accident,” she told me kindly, and then she drove me home. That bit of an accident imprisoned my mother in a series of operations and casts for the next year and a half, and it was during that time that we truly understood how entirely we had been adopted as Saranac Lakers.

Marion must have made the first phone calls. Because even before the radio reported the news of the accident, food began to arrive at the door. One by one the people of Saranac Lake came by and left us casseroles, salads, breads, desserts; for the next four months we had more food than we knew what to do with. Every day someone called, every day someone stopped by. “We just want to know how your mom is today,” that someone would say cheerily. “And do you need anything?”

Of course, being 16, I simultaneously recognized the enormity of the charity being proffered and resented the fishbowl it placed me in. But looking back, I can now fully appreciate the care, the affection, even the love that prompted those gifts.

And there were so many gifts over the years. Gifts I have never acknowledged, gifts from so many people that to name any of them would be to insult the few I did not name.   Suffice it to say that I’ve been around a few blocks by now, and I find it absolutely mind boggling how very much I took away from Saranac Lake fifty plus years ago.

I received a high school education that was nonpareil; I learned the art of self reliance while being nurtured in a vibrant example of communal interdependence that taught me the importance of collaboration. I may not have been popular, but I always knew I was respected, and today, all these years later, several of my classmates still number among my most trusted friends. Though it was far from perfect – black clouds hover over even the most idyllic of retreats – mine was a charmed life, and I am only embarrassed that it has taken me this long to proclaim my appreciation.

So please let me take this moment and these columns of space to acknowledge the giving, gracious people of Saranac Lake. The doctors, teachers, classmates, neighbors, librarians, shopkeepers, parents, custodians, police people, administrators, clergy, service providers . . . the caring folk who peopled this village that raised me.


And allow me to simply say thank you.


Carla Swett Stockton

SLHS ‘65