Monday, May 30, 2016

GRADUATION DAY: The 35th Anniversary Edition

The 35th Anniversary Edition

It's that time of year once again
when students from coast-to-
coast gear-up to celebrate their
greatest life achievement to
date — high school graduation.
And with all the related photos
and congratulatory messages
being posted currently across
social media, I was reminded
of a very special personal high
school experience. Get ready
Class of '81  'cuz Ima 'bout ta
start representin' all up in here!

Memorial Day weekend, 1981. There we were  four wide-eyed teenagers piling into my parents' 1980 Pontiac, setting sail on what would become a "fantastic voyage." In a matter of days, the four of us Ray, Connie, Rich and myself would be graduating from the hallowed "party hardy" halls of Satellite High School. Located in the quaint little community of Satellite Beach, just south of Cocoa Beach on Florida's warm and sunny east coast, SHS was known throughout the area as "The Home of the Stinging Scorpions." How I ever managed to wrangle my mom and dad into allowing me to borrow the family station wagon for a bi-coastal "Sunshine State" excursion such as this, escapes me still. Perhaps they deserved more credit than I gave them at the time. This would be our last HURRAH  our final gasp of high school life. And I guess that my "un-hip" folks actually recognized and appreciated the potential immeasurable value in the experience.

It possessed all the key characters of a classic John Hughes blockbuster — the "jock," the "princess," the "model student" and me — the wannabe "rocker." We were an unlikely, mismatched crew random teens with seemingly little in common. At least that would have been true in today's super-sensitive, hyper-critical iGadget universe. But this was 1981 — the glorious days before communication "advancements" built up the walls that have pushed people away from each other. It was an age of innocence when being different, being unique was endearing. Back then, humans actually communicated with each other, face to face, and with real words that formed complete sentences. OMG! Yes, back in the stone age days of the early 1980s, schoolmates often endeavored to grasp onto the common threads that hold us together, rather than clinging to the differences that tear modern-day peers apart.

Our fantastic voyage would
require a fantastic vessel.
In today's "enlightened" culture, Ray and I would be the last two guys who would discover common ground. Destined for greatness, Ray was good-looking, well-dressed and well-liked — an athletic over-achiever who had amassed impressive academic stats. I, on the other hand, was a rather unkempt, long-haired rock dude who typically sported slightly stretched-out bootleg concert T-shirts. My personal academic schedule included two student aide classes, two drum classes and a student government class. A bona fide under-achiever, I was destined for a certain future filled with professional disappointments, personal heartbreak and an endless string of low-paying beer joint gigs.

But Ray and I did have one thing in common — our love for music — particularly our passion for R&B. As a kid growing up in Springfield, Missouri during the truly enlightened, shag-cover early '70s, I couldn't "hear" race. As a result, I identified with such classic R&B artists as the Ohio Players, Marvin Gaye and Rufus as much as I did with the chart-busting rock acts of the day, including The Doobie Brothers, Grand Funk Railroad and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Although by my senior year, I'd fully embraced hard rock — Van Halen, Ted Nugent and KISS, Ray had been reigniting my past R&B fire through blasting the latest cassettes by Earth, Wind & Fire, Kool and the Gang and the Commodores on his boombox while hanging out in the practice room during our daily chorus class. As a result, when he suggested that we venture across the state to see his current favorite R&B flavor, Shalamar, live in concert at the famed Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg, it actually was an easy sell. "I'M IN," I confessed to Ray, with little persuasion.

When I refer to Connie as a "princess," I mean it in the sweetest, most heartfelt context. With her long flowing brown hair and piercing green eyes, she was a stunning beauty who I'd fallen hopelessly in love with the very first moment I laid eyes on her  the first day I arrived as "the new kid" at DeLaura Junior High, midway through eighth grade. The fact that she could belt out ballads better than Babs only enhanced her allure. But Connie was the "IT" girl, and was the "NOT" guy — admiring her from afar. So when we also connected in chorus class during senior year, I was over the moon. Fortunately, Ray and Connie were chums, and when he also pitched her on our little road trip, she too was sold. And then there were three.

I don't recall how Rich had been recruited for our mission, especially since he was the one non-chorus member in our crew. A guy who I will label fondly as the "model student" of our voyage, I remember Rich being rather conservative and very academic-minded — likely one of Ray's buddies. However, after engaging in a spirited four-way conversation during our three-hour journey. I discovered that Rich and I shared many of the same life goals and interests. Go figure.

When we finally arrived at the Bayfront Center, our lifelong "reality" was turned upside down in very short order. The concert was a high profile showcase for SOLAR's (The Sound Of Los Angeles Records) hottest new artists, including Carrie LucasLakeside, Shalamar, and The Whispers. 7,000 enthusiasts were in attendance for this indoor "Woodstock" of current R&B — 6,996 black teens and 20-somethings from a less-than privileged area on Florida's west coast, and 4 white kids from a rather affluent community on Florida's east coast. While there were several African-American students who attended Satellite High, the sudden leap from being in the 99% majority to instantly being in the 1% minority provided quite a culture shock. 

I recall being overwhelmed by a sense of panic as I felt the four of us being crushed up against a security barricade just prior to the venue's doors being opened at around 6pm. "This ain't no Who concert!" the linebacker-sized black man announced to the crowd of early bird fans who were pressing in behind us. Like a mother hen protecting her four little (white) chicks, he then commanded the crowd, "Ya'll back up, now!" Thanks to our "mother hen," we all made it into the arena without incident.

Despite the enormous turnout, our east coast mini gang somehow managed to shuck our way into four front row center seats. At one point, I remember being "invited" to "shotgun" a joint by the "Beat It"-era Michael Jackson look-alike who was seated next to me. Simply put, I did it all wrong and wound up blowing smoke all up in the dude's face. Fortunately, he was cool about my naivete regarding proper dope-smoking decorum and he shared the rest of his weed with me.

Within minutes, Lakeside had taken the stage. Promoting their successful Fantastic Voyage album, the band members were all adorned in outrageous pirate costumes, while delivering a blistering, high energy, pirate-themed production. Boasting near-non-stop Hendrix-style guitar solos, the Lakeside show was almost more metal than Motown.

Although I'd discovered a new favorite band in Lakeside — a band that was every bit as "down-and-dirty" as the Ohio Players, and more "dangerous" than the Commodores or Earth Wind & Fire, Ray remained absolutely enraptured by the comparatively more commercial sound and polished performance of Shalamar. Ooozing supermodel-caliber eye candy appeal, Shalamar's co-lead vocalist, Jody Watley was simply stunning in her white, skintight, floor-length gown, while Howard Hewett's powerhouse vocals and Jeffrey Daniel's pre-Thriller moon waklin' and poppin'-type dance moves provided Ray with indescribable, long-lasting inspiration.

Looking back, I still can't fathom how on earth we ever made it home that night. Without the benefit of today's GPS technology, and still reeling a bit from "Michael Jackson's" dope, I'd gotten us COMPLETELY lost, out in the middle of nowhere at 3am. Our three-hour departure time turned into a four-hour return. But we did all finally make it home safely. Even the family Pontiac made it back onto my parents' driveway without a scratch. And the next day, the four of us were all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed — revved-up and ready for the ensuing week's worth of graduation festivities — with endless stories to tell of our triumphant final HURRAH.

Our excursion proved to be a magical, once-in-a-lifetime experience. As we shared several first-ever truly adult-type conversations along the way, I realized, perhaps for the first time that night, that we were no longer kids. We'd grown up and we were now moving on with our lives. And with only a few days remaining 'til graduation, I reasoned that I had nothing to lose, and I finally confessed my heart to Connie during our adventure — an awkward, vulnerable moment, to say the least. Seemingly less creeped-out by my revelation than I had expected, she revealed that the only reason we'd never connected was because I'd never asked her out. DOH! A rather late, albeit valuable life lesson. I've thoroughly enjoyed reconnecting and reminiscing with both Ray and Connie at various class reunions since 1981. Connie is still beautiful, and Ray has become a man who I still admire. And even after all these years, we'll never forget our "fantastic voyage."

In sum, I want to congratulate all Class of  2016 grads everywhere — BRAVO! And as you now all go out into the world, I'd like to also encourage you to be bold, be confident, be successful, and be willing to take a few chances  but ALWAYS make wise choices. And remember, that while pursuing degrees, establishing careers and banking buttloads of cash certainly is important, it's the personal relationships that we build with people that add true value to our lives.

-Christopher Long
(May 2016)

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