Saturday, August 23, 2008

Big Red

I was a bit unusual when I was in high school. No, not unusual like the goth kids who painted their hair and eyes black, or like the nerdy kids whose brace-faces were riddled with acne. I was unusual in that I straddled many of the cliques that are usually impregnable by outsiders.

There were many clusterings of students in my school. To start, since my school was in Mississippi, our student population was exactly divided black and white. And though the school was officially integrated, within the walls there was a strict segregation along racial lines. This wasn't overt racism. It wasn't as if most whites in my school were bigoted—we were the ones in public school after all, and not the lily-white private academies. But the white kids found themselves in a certain set of classes, while the blacks were in others. That’s just the way it was. It really was two schools in one building. And it may surprise you to know that this was 1987, not 1950.

Within the white population of my school, like every other school on the planet, we had the jocks, the nerds, the popular girls, the rednecks, the druggie losers, the goths, and the loners.

My "home" clique was the quasi-nerdy smart kids who all shared the same advanced placement courses. However, by playing some sports, I found myself having a few friends who were jocks. We had an exchange student who hooked me in with the rednecks (strangely enough, for our exchange student was from Holland, not Alabama).

Further, I made it my absolute mission to befriend as many of the popular girls as I could: I even kept statistics for how many I counted as friends and how many I had been out on dates with. It was my own personal quest (quixotic as it was) to score with each and every one. I failed miserably, of course, but at least I could count a few of them as being tolerant, if not friendly, to me.


It has been quite a while now since my ten year reunion, but I am still amazed how everyone turned out. Time has not been kind to many of the popular girls. Sure, some had not changed much and still looked fantastic, but most of these young Mississippi big-haired beauties were now older, chubbier, and very much over-made up.

The jocks had fared no better. Most of them were bald and hugely fat. It was clear that all of them had peaked early in life and were now aspiring to be the salesman of the month at Starkville Ford Mercury.

My own group of friends changed as well. Sure, most of us nerds were now successful managers with six figure incomes, but we were certainly also balder and fatter, just like the jocks. We were just better dressed.

There was one person, however, who was still remarkably unchanged. That person was William Wells.

William Wells was an interesting fellow. I never paid him much attention in high school. He was an enormous redneck with a strawberry blonde mullet and bad rosacea. William was around six foot three and weighed close to three hundred pounds. He wasn't obese; he was just BIG. Real big.

And strangely enough, he was the fastest runner on the school soccer team. I am not kidding. When William got going, you sure as hell better get out of the way, or you were squished. He was an out of control locomotive on the field. Our sole strategy through high school soccer was "give William the ball." We did pretty well.

Though he played soccer (and football, and track and field), William was redneck through and through. Cowboy boots, heavy metal t-shirts, ripped jeans, and that wonderful eighties mullet. Plus, he drove a white 1979 Cutlass (or some such gas guzzling behemoth), which you would invariably find doing donuts in the school parking lot. Round and round he'd go. Yee-haw!

So I'm at the reunion, mingling politely with various folks that I haven't seen in years, when I spied a white 1979 Cutlass entering the lot outside. And before it parked, the car spun around in one celebratory donut. William Wells had arrived! In the same damn car!

From across the room, I watched as he and his wife entered and began to greet old classmates. William's wife was what I would consider a typical Mississippi girl. A very petite, but very cute blonde woman, dolled up to the nines to impress this crowd of William's old friends. She didn't go to school with us, and I didn't know her, but she was exactly what I would expect from someone like William. And the contrast of her iddy-biddy frame against the hulk that was William was striking—like a bichon friese paired up with a St. Bernard.

But it was William that amazed me most. Man, that guy hadn't change a bit! He was still exactly the same as he was in high school—same hair, same 300 pounds, same everything!

I finally approached William to say hello. He greeted me more warmly than I would have expected. Again, we were never really close during high school.

Our conversation went as most of these reunion conversations do:

"So, William, how are you doing?" I asked.

"Scott Harris! Good t’ see ya. I’m a’right. This' my wife, S-----."

"Nice to meet you. My wife, Becky, couldn't be here. My son was just born last week."

"Oh, great! Congradu-layshuns," he said in a slow drawl, "So, what is it you do?"

"I'm a software manager for a telecom company back in Atlanta," I said. "What about you?"

"Ah'm a grease-monkey."

At this point, William's beautiful spouse, who had been quietly nodding her way through the conversation, gave William a very quick, very severe, and oh-so-very sharp elbow right in the ribs.

He gasped. "Ah...ah... I mean, I'm an automotive technician," he said, straightening up and still catching his breath.

I smiled and laughed to myself. Nothing had changed. Not one thing. And for some strange reason, this made me very happy.

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