Sam Cook column: Prairie passage: Your life in the blink of an eye
Here comes the Class of '67 now, cruising up Main Street in the trolley car that class members borrowed from the senior-citizen home. They're lined up four or five to a row across the open-air trolley seats, waving to a few onlookers.
It's the annual Alumni Parade in our little hometown on the prairie.
My wife is on the front row in the trolley. She's the one leaning forward, waving energetically. That's how she rolls.
We have driven 12 hours one way to this still-healthy little burg on the plains — our hometown — for this gathering in America's heartland. The first green shoots of this year's corn crop are almost ankle-high, reaching for the morning sun. Cattle queue up to feed bunks in barn yards masticating last summer's alfalfa hay.
We could have stuck around, found work, had our kids, been happy. We could have watched a lot of Little League with our grown-up high school classmates, taken our turns in the PTA or school board. That's what the ones who stayed have done, and they seem happy.
We just happened to get a whiff of the north woods long ago and had to check it out. We didn't mean to stay, but the North took us in. We traded wheat for wild rice, quail for ruffed grouse, tractors for canoes.
Phyllis and I had practiced for her 50th class reunion. Mine was last year, and she had joined me. We both knew plenty of folks in the other's graduating classes.
Attending a half-century reunion is kind of like watching a fast-forward version of your life. One minute in the video, you're having sleep-overs and running track meets with a passel of kids who happened to be born the same year you were. The next thing you know, you're eating pulled-pork sandwiches and passing around smartphones, showing gray-haired classmates what your offspring look like.
It's sensory overload, of course, this immersion in your past. You tell your life story 30 or 40 times in two sentences each. And you listen to 30 or 40 life stories in equally compressed versions.
Here is what you come away with:
1. It is difficult to predict, based on one's impressions of others in Mr. Ary's government class, just what they will accomplish in life. Many bloom late and do great things.
2. Some, however, are completely predictable. You knew, way back when, that she was destined for big things. You were right.
3. Life is unfair. Some people die young. Some of us lose husbands or wives. Some lose kids. As a result, some of us walk through the world bearing almost unspeakable sadness. They wave at us from the trolley on Main Street, and we have no clue about the grief they carry.
But here is the main conclusion one reaches looking around the room at your former classmates: Life is short.
It may be wonderful and rich and laced with poignant nuance, but it is still short. And this is what you want to tell the Class of 2017: Do not tarry. Do not procrastinate. Do not coast too long.
If you think you might want to marry that woman, then ask her. If you think you might want to start your own business, take the plunge. If you think you should run for office or travel to Morocco or join the Peace Corps, then, friend, get on with it.
Because this old mudball of a planet is flying around the sun faster than it seems, and none of us knows how long we get to stay on the ride.
That's what runs through your mind, standing on Main Street, talking to a farmer whose hog barn you used to shovel out on Saturdays, watching your sweetie wave to you from the trolley.