The Homecoming Queen leans heavily on her cane, still able to flash a winning smile through her agony.

The class president-turned-lifelong politician is retired but continues working the crowd for votes.

The star center of the basketball team is a bit stooped now, yet he still towers above the rest of us.

Waistlines have thickened, some enormously. Hair has disappeared or turned gray. I don’t recognize some faces. Others are familiar but no longer have names. Some remember me, but I don’t remember them. Some others are so familiar that it seems a timewarp has taken me back to 1963.

We tour the old high school, almost abandoned now, a white elephant, too expensive to renovate, too costly to demolish. Each year the school board tries to find a use for it, but the subcommittee tables the issue until the next year, hoping something will come up. They closed it a couple years after we graduated, replacing it with something modern, windowless, sterile and functional that could easily be mistaken for the local cheese factory.

Now the old high school is our time capsule, an expanded version of the contents of a newly opened cornerstone. An argument breaks out ... are the walls the same color? Or have they been painted another equally drab color? One debater is sure it’s the same color as ever. She even remembers her locker number; she stands in front of the old thing racking her brain for the combination.

I rack mine, too, but all I can come up with are my Military Service Number and the street number of a house I lived in 30 years ago.

The tour moves on, with my classmates and me peeking into decades-empty classrooms. Mr. Martin’s art classroom looks like it was abandoned yesterday, save for the thick cobwebs shrouding the work tables and storage cabinets. I almost expect that small, plump and bespectacled nebbish to appear in the flesh, though I know he’s been dead for years. I didn’t like him, and I’m sure the feeling was mutual. Art was not my forte, not even close. But what does that matter now?

Ascending to the second floor, I gently take the Homecoming Queen’s arm and help her up the stairs, my own knees aching as I do so. I was too shy to talk to her back then. The idea of touching her, for any reason, never entered my mind. We talk now, for the first time, as we climb slowly, step by step. Our conversation continues when we reach level ground.

“You were the class brain," she says. "I was afraid to talk to you then. Afraid you’d think I was nothing but a dumb bosomy blond.”

“I was afraid, too," I say. "You were so beautiful and I was a fat, clumsy, klutz with no social skills, fearing that if I opened my mouth in your presence nothing would come out, or something nervous and idiotic would, and you’d bolt for the safety of your girlfriends.”

“Why does it take 50 years to learn the truth about people?” She smiles broadly now, without pain.

“Maybe it needs 50 years for the ones who thought they were dumb to realize they aren’t. And the ones who thought they were so smart to realize they’re not nearly as smart as they thought they were.”

“So we meet in the middle.” She laughs, tossing back her still-blond (though perhaps with assistance) hair and looking almost like I remember her from high school.

“Yes, meet in the middle," I say. "See how smart you are now!”

We continue our discussion past the principal’s office and all the other offices. Some are still in use by various "coordinators" and "facilitators" and "administrative assistants." Then it's down the stairs again, my arm around her waist this time. It feels good.

“Don’t strain yourself," she says. "There’s a lot more of me now than there was then.” She giggles girlishly.

“Perhaps, but it’s still in all the right places,” I reply. I give her a playful squeeze before I disengage.

“Flatterer! But I’ll take all the flattery I can get at my age.”

“At your age? You mean you’re old? I hadn’t noticed. You certainly sound young.”

The final stop on our tour is the auditorium. It's a typical set-up from the 1930s with 900 upholstered seats facing a basketball court that, with back curtains and scrim drawn, doubled as a stage for our school plays.

The Homecoming Queen and I part ways. She joins a knot of old girlfriends while I wander alone across the court to the edge of the stage, gazing out over the small sea of threadbare maroon seats, not knowing why I've come.

The WPA mural on the wall looks just as it always did. I remember it being the nearest thing to "real art" I'd ever seen with muscular farmers in Adonis-like poses leaning against their scythes. Heroic farm wives strain to glimpse a brighter tomorrow as chubby, pink-cheeked children tug at their skirts or swirl about their feet. In the background a tractor representing progress neatly furrows a swelling hill in the style I later learned was pure Thomas Hart Benton. And beyond the tractor, on the far horizon, blue-coated cavalrymen chase Indians into oblivion.

I’d heard that the bluecoats and redskins were slated to be expunged in the interest of political correctness, but it seems the revisionist movement failed, or perhaps they couldn’t find a way to remove the offensive bits without making the mural so ugly they'd need to paint over the whole thing. Paint over the whole thing? How much would that cost? Perhaps too much for the ever-frugal school board. Maybe that, too, has been tabled until next year.

As I strain to see the darkened balcony, I suddenly realize why I've come. I glimpse the balcony's iron railing and can imagine the spotlights once clamped to it. I look down and see the trapdoor for the footlights. It's closed now, but open, with lights blazing up, in my memory.

I put one foot in front of those footlights, tottering at the edge of the stage, as the director told me, and begin to "sell the song" with all the vigor I can.

“Kids, I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today!”

I stop and look around, a little embarrassed. The jocks standing under the basketball net -- survivors of our starting five plus a few benchwarmers -- stop swapping tales of old Cager glory and stare. The Homecoming Queen and her court pause their happy chatter, until one of them sings out.

“Kids, who can understand anything they say!”

She glides across the waxed wooden floor toward me, still singing, and I join in. She is one of those "girls" whose name I've forgotten.

“Mrs. MacAfee," I finally blurt. "My Mrs. MacAfee.”

“And my dear clueless hubby, Harry, let’s keep singing.”

And so we keep singing, through all the bits and pieces of every number in “Bye, Bye Birdie,” our class musical.

I'm surprised how much we remember. I thought I was the only one with such a good memory, but I should have known better. They're all a lot smarter than I thought.

 

Jim Stanton is a 1963 graduate of New Ulm High School. He went on to attend the University of Minnesota and serve the U.S. Army Security Agency in Thailand as a Laotian translator and interpreter. He married a Thai girl, came back to the states and floundered for a few years before settling into the computer/software developer industry. Now retired, he spends much of his time writing military memoirs and other stories, such as this one. 

ABOUT 10,000 Takes: 10,000 Takes is a new digital section featuring first-person essays about life in the North Star State. We publish narratives about love, family, work, community and culture in Minnesota. Got a story to tell? Send your draft to christy.desmith@startribune.com.