Unrecognizable friends

Father David Epps's picture

I was back in my hometown of Kingsport, Tenn., for a special event. My father-in-law, John F. Douglas, Jr., was to be given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 61st Annual Dinner of the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce.

He is only the 17th individual to be honored in this manner by the Chamber, so most of his family and I would be present. I was looking forward to being back in the town of my youth.

Following high school graduation, I enlisted in the Marine Corps a few months later. I returned to finish college, get married, and work locally for a period of time. I left Kingsport for good just after Christmas 1980.

The expected attendance at the Chamber of Commerce dinner was to be around 1,200. For the first time since high school, I would have the opportunity to meet old friends, renew acquaintances, and catch up on where people had been and what they had been doing. Somehow, I wasn’t prepared for the truth of what would occur.

As I wandered through the crowd just prior to dinner, I realized that I could be surrounded by hundreds of people that I knew but I wouldn’t be able to recognize any if them. Nor would they be able to recognize me. We had aged beyond the point of recognition.

I did see my cousin Connie Salyer, but we had seen each other over the years. Everyone else appeared to be a stranger, old, balding, graying, plumper strangers.

In my mind, the people I left in high school have become frozen in my mind. That young lady who was the head majorette is still the same 17-year-old beauty in my memories. The girls I used to date still look the same. The athletes with whom I shared the football field are still young, strong, and full of testosterone. Joe Meade who played halfback, joined the Marines, and was killed in Vietnam, still looks the same. All of them, with few exceptions, are frozen in time, locked in my memories.

I also realized that people who passed by me and may have shared classes for years would not recognize me. I, of course, look exactly the same as I did when I was 16 — except for the white hair and beard, the extra pounds, and the wrinkles and lines.

The people I was looking for still existed somewhere out in that large room, but now they were parents and grandparents, less than a decade from retirement age. It was sobering.

There is an upside, I suppose. By not being able to connect, we were spared all the lies that people tell when they get together after so many years. Lies such as, “Oh, you haven’t changed a bit.” “You are looking so good!” “You know I used to have a crush on you.”

Someone asked me a few weeks ago if I was a good athlete in my younger days. My reply was, “The older I get, the better I was!”

I’m not certain how my high school classmates would remember me. I’m not even sure I want to know. For me, life is not defined by high school experiences. I have met people who still talk about that dropped touchdown pass or who used to date whom and is now divorced and re-married to what’s-her name.

I have warm memories, for the most part, and I think I prefer that things stay that way. The girls I used to date are still vivacious and pretty and full of life and hope. The guys I hung around with are still the same bunch of care-free, fun-loving young bucks who didn’t know how challenging the world would turn out to be.

In my memories, all my teachers and coaches are still alive. In my memories, I am still part of the Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett Indians football team and I can smell the dirt and grass and sweat and I can taste the mouthpiece and the blood and I can hit just as hard and run just as fast — in my memories.

My reality exists somewhere else now. My reality is being married for nearly 37 years, having three grown sons, and nine grandchildren (with another on the way), and being a pastor. The friends I have now are those who have grown gray with me or who are growing up, beginning lives, and maturing in front of me.

Last week I had a two and a half hour lunch with a friend I didn’t even know a few years ago. We finally ran out of time, not things to talk about. I’m not sure what I would say after the first 10 minutes to the old high schools chums.

Still, it would have been nice to hear, “Oh, you haven’t changed a bit.” “You are looking so good!” “You know I used to have a crush on you.”

And I am sure that, in my case, they would have been telling the truth.

login to post comments | Father David Epps's blog