On a recent Sunday afternoon, I had the most incredible experience: I sat in a roomful of 50 men and women who had lunch, talked, reminisced, and enjoyed themselves for four hours. The incredible part was that they did all that without cell phones, without liquor, without vulgar language, without loud “music,” without blaring TV screens, and without wrecking the place. All of them are white. All of them are decent and disciplined. They are, therefore, atypical 21st-century Americans. They grew up in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. They are Old School. They are not “cool” or trendy; if they were, I would have known I had walked into the wrong room.
The occasion was a reunion of people who attended schools in the neighborhood in south St. Louis where my father lived as a boy. He organized the first such reunion in 1988. One man was so grateful for the reunions that he sent my father a four-page handwritten letter describing his memories of schoolmates in the 1920s.
This year’s event, the 25th annual reunion was the last – because the people who do the most work are tired and beset with health concerns, and because younger people have no interest in such reunions.
All of those people grew up in two old, adjacent, working-class neighborhoods that were largely self-sufficient: Grocery stores, bakeries, meat markets, confectionaries, drug stores, a farmer’s market, clothing stores, hat shops, jewelry stores, medical and dental offices, barber shops, beauty shops, hardware stores, corner taverns, city parks, a swimming pool, a library, churches, schools, movie theatres, and places of employment all stood within those neighborhoods. Virtually everything they needed could be found within walking distance from where they lived. Everyone walked everywhere.
It was an area of cold-water flats and breadboxes in front of corner markets; of railroad tracks and factories near the Mississippi River; where shop-owners lived above their shops; where saloon-keepers bounced customers who used vulgar language; and where families went window-shopping on Saturday nights along a street lined with stores. Many of them did not own an automobile or a telephone.
In contrast, many modern Americans are awash in excess and have little moral fiber. The people at the reunion did it the other way around: Excess was never a part of their lives, but they had moral fiber in abundance. None of them lived on Easy Street. Many of them were poor in material comforts. But they were not poor in things that matter: Imagination, self-discipline, common sense, self-reliance, loyalty to their families, schools, churches, and neighborhood, and a determination to pull their own weight. “It was customary not to ask for help. You stood or fell on your own,” wrote Betty Pavlige in her book Growing Up In Soulard (1980, pp. 24-25). She grew up there in the 1920s-‘30s and then operated a beauty shop there for 49 years.
There was no moral relativism in their lives. Because many of them were poor, medical care was often beyond their reach, and injuries and death were no strangers to them. “The stern facts of life had strong influence on our moral standards and the code of ethics that we lived by – or violated with terrible feelings of risk,” she wrote. “Dependability was a high virtue, and we regarded a lie, even a little white lie, as one of the serious offenses. …The lie even became a kind of allegory of death, because it submerged truth, covered it over and contaminated it. This was taught in our homes, and it was reinforced by consensus among the children wherever we gathered to play – the schoolyard, the streets, the river.” (p. 89)
They learned early in life to appreciate simple pleasures: “We believed that one step below heaven on a hot summer day was to have the 5 cents to put in the Coca-Cola machine and bring out that small frosty bottle…” (p. 93)
For heat in the winter, they burned coal. For air-conditioning in the summer, they opened the windows.
For entertainment on weekends, they walked a few blocks to watch boat and barge traffic on the river, or played softball or baseball on vacant corner lots, or walked to any of three unpretentious movie houses to enjoy the B-Westerns of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, or Hopalong Cassidy, or listened every Saturday evening to radio’s “Your Hit Parade”.
They were not perfect, but they had enough sense to uphold form, proportion, perspective, balance, and hierarchy in their lives – which is considerably more sense than many Americans have today.
My Aunt Helen attended a public school there a hundred years ago. Her 8th-grade graduation photo from 1915 shows her in a white dress with a serrated hem well below the knee, a string of pearls, white dress shoes, and a white ribbon in her hair. In one hand she holds a “Certificate of Scholarship.” Try to imagine that degree of refinement in any public school ceremony today. In that picture, she projects more dignity at age 14 than many women do today at age 30 or 40. In the 1920s, she worked as an elevator operator in a handsome office building in the heart of downtown St. Louis that has now stood abandoned and deteriorating for two decades.
I spoke with a lady at the reunion who graduated from a parochial school in 1949. She has wonderful memories of that parish and its beautiful, German Gothic church. But she told me it has been thoroughly modernized: All the pews were taken out and replaced with seating “in the round”, and services are now in English, not Latin, and include hand-clapping. She did not think favorably of those changes. I could only agree.
Attachment to a particular place is something many modern Americans will never feel or understand. But these people understood it well, half a century after they moved away when large portions of that neighborhood were demolished. My father understood it: Never lured by the modern rat race, he was content to live for 73 years within five blocks from where his boyhood home had stood.
Photos from that old neighborhood were displayed at the reunion, along with class graduation pictures from the 1950s. The dress and demeanor of boys and girls in those pictures are a moral universe removed from – and better than – what is seen in schools today.
It was a bittersweet afternoon for me. I knew I was in a roomful of the best kind of men and women: Hard-working, reliable, down-to-earth, plain-spoken, straight-shooting men and women who never expected or asked for any special favors from anyone, and who never imagined that anyone owed them anything. And I knew that their code of moral standards and self-discipline are fast disappearing from the American landscape. Such people are a glorious contrast to the pampered, overeducated, miseducated, and ill-mannered people we see so often today. The difference is that they were teenagers once but got over it and grew up – whereas modern Americans prefer to remain teenagers.
In 1997, the Reunion Committee gave my father a certificate of appreciation to express gratitude to him for his work in organizing the early school reunions.
In 2012, I gave each member of that Committee a certificate of appreciation to express my gratitude to them for their labor of love in continuing those annual reunions for a quarter-century.
I knew that this last reunion marked the end of an era for those good people. It was an honor to sit among them.