Childhood tribe knows us even in adult masks


October 08, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

My old friend John spots me across a crowded room and a distance of too many years.

"Michael," he shouts.

"John," I shout back.

We throw our arms around each other. Around us, more than 400 intimate strangers are going through the same delighted reunions. We're gathered last Friday night at Martin's West in a regrouping of those who attended Howard Park Elementary School No. 218, at Liberty Heights Avenue, just below Gwynn Oak Junction.

We've come here in search of yesterday. In our heads, we remember exactly how the past happened, but once in a while we touch base with actual living people from back then to see if we got the details right, and to find out things have worked out since then.

"John," comes another voice now. It is a woman, about our age, perhaps an old classmate, who is clearly thrilled to see my friend.

"Hi," says John, but there's something missing from his voice.

"How are you?" the woman says, warmth bubbling over.

"OK," John says, increasingly uneasy.

The woman has caught on now.

"Don't you remember me?" she asks.

"Uh, no," says John.

"But I'm your ex-sister-in-law."

The years will do that. With one or two brief exceptions, the last time I saw my friend John was more than a quarter-century ago. The last time he saw this woman was maybe a decade ago. He was married to her sister.

The past keeps slipping away. The details get a little fuzzy with the passage of time. At Memorial Stadium over the weekend, we gathered for one last afternoon to say farewell to our memories. Baseball keeps libraries filled with statistics for those who wish to examine the past, but the numbers don't necessarily translate to emotion, which is what we seek. The game holds onto the national psyche, even in a time of corporate greed and manipulation, because it seems a repository of innocence.

But school days were more innocent still. We grow old, and we learn how to hide. Whatever vulnerabilities we have, whatever weaknesses that might be exploited, we learn to keep from the world. We major in self-defense.

Here's the difference with old schoolmates: We knew them before we learned how to hide, and they knew us. There are no masks. No matter how many years have fled and how long we've gone since graduation, we reunite in a kind of extended and undeniable intimacy. We knew each other in our early incarnations, and there's nothing we could do about it even if we wanted to.

At Memorial Stadium on Sunday, there was a fellow named Steve LaPlanche. He is 38. He was one of those who'd go to the airport with the legendary fan Loudy Loudenslager whenever the Baltimore Colts were coming home.

And now, on this afternoon of baseball on 33rd Street, here was LaPlanche talking about yesterdays in the unmistakable language of the innocent.

"I have Big Daddy Lipscomb's old jersey at home," he said. "Sherman Plunkett gave it to me. I have John Unitas' old cape, that he wore in the late '50s. I have the glove Jim Palmer wore when he won his 200th game.

"You know," said LaPlanche, "I was 3 years old when my father started bringing me out here. My father died last year. So I guess it's fitting I'm alone today."

"You're not alone," said a fellow standing nearby, gesturing toward the gathering crowd.

"Yeah," said LaPlanche. "I guess I'm not."

The years tend to isolate us. In school, we're part of tribes: not only our classmates, who are with us for six hours each day but those on the playground, those on the neighborhood streets.

We lose track of those tribes as we move into adulthood, and some of us yearn for them. We come to the ballpark not only to see the athletes in action, but to join with intimate strangers. The act's innocence is its very simplicity.

At the Howard Park reunion, everyone had stories of growing up awkward. We all grow through it. Reunions are a time to say look how we survived our own clumsiness and misguided energies. And remember, in spite of pain, how much fun we had, too.

At Memorial Stadium on Sunday, here was Tom D'Antoni, publisher of the monthly newspaper called Harry, now in its second incarnation since going out of business here in the early '70s. D'Antoni used to sit up in section 34 with the Wild Bill Hagy gang.

"I sat up there hundreds of times," said D'Antoni. "You know what it was? It was the feeling of freedom. It was a license to be a child again, without your parents."

We seek out little pockets of innocence, whether it's a school reunion or a fond farewell to an old ballpark.

Things are pretty rough these days. The governor's talking of terrible job terminations, and the cutbacks in social programs could be deep. The fallout would devastate the city of Baltimore, which is already struggling for survival.

For a few moments here and there we seek refuge. Winter is coming soon enough. Money is tight, and the days will grow colder and people will need something to huddle around.

For a lot of people, it comes down to the memory of old childhood friends, or intimate strangers at the ballpark, basking in the last glow of summer.

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