At a 10-year class reunion, one loud laugh was missing

But for the war, Kent County grad would have been the life of the party


October 26, 2003|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,Sun Staff

CHESTERTOWN -- There are people who would rather take the SAT exam again than endure an evening at a 10-year high school reunion. Then there are people like Jarrett Thompson. He was popular and charming, athletic and confident, with a booming staccato laugh that filled every room he entered. Jarrett wasn't just looking forward to his 10-year reunion. More than a year in advance, he started planning it.

If you graduated from Kent County High School in 1993, you shouldn't be that surprised. On graduation day, the idea of Jarrett Thompson missing the 10-year reunion was like Harris Warner and Sonny Herman -- aka "longest-dating couple" -- calling it quits. Jarrett, senior class president, didn't skip parties. He threw parties -- big, boisterous, we'll-spare-the-rest-of- the-details parties -- and his charismatic personality guaranteed he was the life of them.

Of course, Jarrett would be at the 10-year reunion. Long before his Army-reserve unit was activated last winter, he'd started thinking about the event. What better excuse to do what he loved -- throw a party. "I need to be the one to plan it," he told his wife, Kelly. He knew what he wanted: an open bar, a sit-down dinner, a live band and dancing, a ballroom in a hotel where out-of-towners could stay over. He wasn't just talking, either. More than a year before the event was expected to take place, Jarrett had called a hotel, looked at menus and thought about a band.

"He always wanted to do everything top-notch," says Kelly. "I think he was going to get a reality check when he got all the prices."

He got a reality check, all right. But it had nothing to do with the party. In early January, he got the call to report for active duty. By spring, he was in Kuwait. During the summer, he went into Iraq.

Earlier this month, on Oct. 11, Jarrett's high school class held its 10-year reunion. The night could not have turned out more differently than he'd envisioned. The party featured a buffet dinner at a Chestertown country club, a DJ instead of live music, and a bar where only the beer was free. But that was far from the worst part.

The worst part was that nobody at the reunion asked why Jarrett wasn't there. The worst part was that nobody needed to. Everybody there already knew. Jarrett, a member of the Army Reserve's 946th Transportation Company, had died the previous month at Walter Reed Army Medical Center from injuries he sustained in a truck accident in Iraq. He was 27.

The party animal

Some people go to their high school reunions, and some people don't. Either way, they're part of the same story, the one that unfolds at every high school reunion, the one about what happens when life intersects with dreams and plans.

Jarrett's reunion, held a month after his funeral, wasn't the somber affair you might have expected. He was missed that night, of course. But it was still a class reunion, with alcohol and music, and dressed-up people working the room to see what had changed and what hadn't. Discovering that Harris Warner and Sonny Herman not only are still a couple -- 13 years and counting -- but a married one. Hearing that the girl voted "party animal" in 1993 is now a dental hygienist with two children.

The guy voted "party animal" in 1993 was Jarrett Thompson, who never got the chance to tell his classmates where the last 10 years had taken him. He had a wife, two young sons, a home in Dover, Del. He'd served three years active duty in the Army, two of them with a special operations unit in Fort Campbell, Ky. And now he was a design engineer at a company that designs and installs commercial kit-chens.

Not that he still didn't like to have a good time. "He would have been the loudest person here," says Kelly, who came to the reunion with her husband's brothers, Shawn and Lance. "He was just that kind of guy -- big and loud and a smile on his face all the time. He could charm anybody."

Raising a glass

Jarrett's presence was larger than life. But what about his absence? It makes itself known in more personal ways than a booming voice, in the quiet realizations of people who knew him in high school. People like his friend Tracey Clark Nicholson, who says she didn't worry about Jarrett when he was deployed, but now thinks of him every time she hears a casualty report from Iraq.

"This is the first connection I had with the war," Tracey says. "The first person I've known personally who went over and isn't coming back. Before, I never thought, 'I wonder if Jarrett is OK?' It wasn't real enough to me that it could have been him."

The Kent County High School Class of '93 reunion never felt like a memorial service. But after the roast beef and potatoes, there were a few brief speeches in Jarrett's honor. The final tribute was from his younger brother, Lance, who finished by asking everyone to raise a glass.

Jarrett's classmates clinked their glasses, and the room fell silent. No one moved or said a word or even clapped. They sat perfectly quiet at their linen-covered tables, as if waiting to see what would happen next. Ten seconds went by without a sound. Twenty. Thirty. The silence filled the room, the way Jarrett's voice would have if he'd been there. It held them, and connected them, a group of former classmates who hadn't all been in one place for a decade.

Kind of like the old days, when Jarrett was the guy who brought them together, only this time he wasn't laughing, and neither were they.

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