A river of memories

“[Y]esterday’s gone on down the river and you can’t get it back.”
— Capt. Augustus McCrae in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, 1985

The river of our youth, the Mississippi, flowed past in its timeless majesty as we gathered in Alton, Ill., for a reunion of Marquette High School’s Class of 1960.
When I was a callow youth of 17, about to graduate from that high school named for an explorer of the Mississippi, Father Jacques Marquette, that river was a highway to a broader world beyond Alton and the Midwest.
The school sits high on a hill overlooking the Mississippi. As I gazed at it day after day, I sometimes entertained a fanciful notion of finagling a job as a deckhand on one of the towboats that plied the Big River and making my way to New Orleans. There, I figured, I’d sign on to a freighter bound for who knows where.

Marquette High School

A song from the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s summed up my aspirations at the time. And it rattled around in my head throughout the summer of 1962, when I and a Marquette classmate flew to London on a Southern Illinois University charter flight and traveled throughout Europe on Mobylette mopeds bought in Brussels. We got as far south as the Amalfi Coast of Italy on those underpowered beasts before abandoning them in Bordeaux, France, in favor of hitchhiking to Paris.

Moon River, wider than a mile,
I’m crossing you in style some day.
Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker,
wherever you’re going I’m going your way.
Two drifters off to see the world.
There’s such a lot of world to see.
We’re after the same rainbow’s end —
waiting ’round the bend,
my huckleberry friend,
Moon River and me.

I did get to see a chunk of the world since that magical summer, mostly as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press for 16 years.
But that seemed like a lifetime ago as members of the Class of 1960, including my 1962 traveling companion, Jim Schwegel, congregated on the Mississippi River just above Alton for the first event of our reunion. It was a walk of about a mile, through a wooded park, from the Great River Road to the high ground on the limestone bluffs above the river, and back down the trail to the start point.


From there we went to lunch on the deck of a winery on the river. A highlight of the luncheon was the attendance of our former varsity football coach, Ron Holtman, now 81, but looking younger than many of my classmates.
During his 11 years at Marquette from 1955 to 1966, his first job as a high school head coach, Holtman molded young minds and bodies in his world history classes and on the football field before becoming a coaching legend at Country Day School in St. Louis by winning seven state football championships.
I described Holtman as “a real-life Mr. Chips” in a story I wrote in 2005 for the Star-Telegram in Fort Worth, my employer before I retired in 2008.

A young Ron Holtman with 1957 Explorers co-captain Jim Fallon

“Winning, of course, was important to Holtman, but not paramount,” I wrote in that 2005 piece. “His real legacy is a multitude of once-impressionable teens who heeded his example in the classroom and on the playing field and went on to lead decent, productive lives. To us, he’ll always be ‘Coach.'”
And “Coach” he still was at our 50th reunion, attended by former students who went on to become doctors, lawyers, dentists, priests and journalists. Although he must have coached and taught thousands of students in his stellar career, the last 39 years at Country Day, Holtman remembered the faces and names of his former Marquette players and the positions they played.
Arthur Chipping, the title character in James Hilton’s 1934 story Goodbye, Mr. Chips, would sometimes recite by rote the names on the rolls of previous classes. “Where had they all gone to, he often pondered; those threads he had once held together, how far had they scattered, some to break, others to weave into unknown patterns?”
Holtman’s former charges also are scattered far and wide. But they’re tied together by memories of an influential adult in their formative years.
At a Saturday night dinner at a local country club, none of us looked much like we did 50 years ago. But name tags with photos from our senior yearbook helped prevent embarrassing memory lapses. Someone circulated among the former classmates, passing out copies of a bit of doggerel by an anonymous author about the ritual of high school reunions.

I’ll never forget the first time we met,
We tried so hard to impress.
We drove fancy cars, smoked big cigars,
And wore our most elegant dress.

It was quite an affair; the whole class was there.
It was held at a fancy hotel.
We wined, and we dined, and we acted refined,
And everyone thought it was swell…

A verse near the end spoke to the attendees of our reunion:

By the fiftieth year, it was abundantly clear,
We were definitely over the hill.
Those who weren’t dead had to crawl out of bed,
And be home in time for their pill…

It was a wonderful weekend for savoring a river of memories and renewing friendships. But as Capt. McCrae said in Lonesome Dove: “[Y]esterday’s gone on down the river and you can’t get it back.”



Filed under Americana, History, Travels

4 responses to “A river of memories

  1. John Vandevelde

    Bravo! They are all great, but this is a really wonderful piece.

  2. Bill Gross

    Dear Jim,
    Thank you for doing such a great job reveling about our recent reunion. It was a great time with a big turnout.
    You have a terrific gift as a wordsmith and it is apparent why you have been with the Associated Press for so long.
    I truly appreciated your article and wish I could have been along on some of your travels.
    Bill Gross

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