STEVE SMELLEY HAD SOMETHING TO PROVE to the jerks who had made fun of his last name. Greg Smith, a short and tongue-tied Beaver Cleaver look-alike twenty years ago, was raring to charm the ladies. The two most vivacious cheerleaders had died violent deaths, the class favorite had watched his well-heeled father-in-law get carted off to federal prison for savings and loan improprieties, and one of the quarterbacks, Sandy Sanderson, was serving a fifty-year prison sentence for crimes committed as the Voss Road Rapist. Meanwhile, the class snob was now a missionary’s secretary, the weasely back-of-the-classroom guy, Tim Fertitta, was now Galveston restaurant mogul Tilman Fertitta . . . and I, a journalist who has willingly incurred the wrath of prison gangs, an arson ring, Mexican drug lords, and the Texas Rangers, was still terrified of my high school peers, but about to get over it.
Roughly 180 of my fellow 510 class of 1976 graduates convened in Houston the first weekend in August to commemorate our days at Westchester, a high school in the Spring Branch Independent School District that was closed nine years ago because there weren’t enough kids left in the suburbs. None fled faster than I did, and Westchester had something to do with it. I might as well just come out and say it: I would sooner wax sentimental about the cold war than about my high school. To my great disappointment, Westchester wasn’t razed after its closing and replaced by a shopping mall. Instead, a community college moved right into the building, which remains sprawling and windowless, eerily reminiscent of certain state institutions I’ve toured. Intact as well is the entryway, which our school song describes as “tall and stately arches” but which appears to be a bizarre homage to McDonald’s. Come to think of it, our head principal looked a little bit like a portly McDonald’s line manager, though in fact he was an ex—football coach, like many Westchester administrators during that uncertain era of post-hippiedom. While Japanese educators were training their students to become masters of high technology, Westchester’s principals spent the seventies prowling the halls in search of long-haired boys and braless girls to send home for “distracting” the student body from its central mission—which was, of course, to console the football team after another loss. (Our soft suburban honkies were never a match for the tough hayseeds of Conroe and Cy-Fair.)
Rather than be labeled a jock sniffer, I assigned myself the equally clichéd role of Campus Rebel, that sullen hybrid of geek and stoner uniquely equipped to repel the opposite sex. On the blessed last day of school, our vice principal, Robert West, took time out from his busy routine of browbeating the few remaining hippies to inform me that I had been a “failure” at Westchester. The remark would have devastated me had it not been delivered by someone with a wardrobe straight out of Dragnet. But Mr. West had a point: Westchester and I didn’t exactly bring out the best in each other.
So why go back? I was still asking myself that question at the Friday night reunion “beer bust” when a short brunette I recognized as being a former Westchester Wranglerette drill team member came up to me and declared, “I love reading Texas Monthly. You know who my favorite writer is? Skip Hollandsworth.”
I thanked her for that little sucker punch and surveyed the nightclub’s upper deck, which was groaning under the weight of 38-year-olds. Ours had been an affluent class, and two decades later, few of us looked underfed. But there was Laura Kraft Conway, the class beauty, still so serene and self-possessed and hauntingly beautiful that one of our most charismatic jocks confessed to me, “You know, I never once talked to her. I was too intimidated.” I fixed that, dragging him blushing over to Laura, who greeted him graciously, though in a muted voice: Two cancer operations and continuing medical problems had made it difficult for her to talk. I wandered off, sobered by Laura’s bravery in the face of her travails, and then ran into a former classmate who was distinctly not sober.
“I just wanted to tell you . . .” he began as he swayed toward my nose and then rambled on for the next five minutes. The subject of his monologue seemed to be his life, past and present, but about the only intelligible word I picked out was “drunk.” At last he concluded, “I really wanted to catch you tonight, ’cause I won’t be at the party tomorrow.” Grinning, he added, “The Sex Pistols are in town.”
“Now there’s a reunion,” I said to him as I edged away and retrieved my beer at a table where a crowd of males had formed. They were looking at our senior class yearbook—specifically, at the unremarkable photo of Pam Lacy. As one, we then peered over to a statuesque blonde cheerfully circulating about the deck in a black dress that looked to have been surgically applied to her body. “Pam Lacy?” someone—maybe it was me—said. She was now Pamela Lacy West, divorced and with two daughters, a hotshot oil technology salesperson and greatly amused to be receiving all this attention from guys who, twenty years ago, didn’t know her from a pencil eraser. “Oh, I was around,” she assured me with a laugh. “I was just one of those quiet ones who was always being tormented by . . .” and then she whispered the name of one of Westchester’s social princesses, who, I would observe later, had been less kindly treated by the years and looked noticeably chastened throughout the weekend.
The following afternoon, our class gathered at the old campus for a picnic—an event staged both to bask unashamedly in nostalgia and to trot out the toddlers. Lacking in both categories, I killed part of the afternoon driving through the neighborhood of my youth, where my parents still reside. It’s actually a fine, well-groomed, pine-redolent