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'Saving Private Ryan' gets warm, but vague reception at a high school reunion

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. And sometimes not. This time out, he takes a vacation from movies and celebrities, traveling to Southern California for his unexpectedly surreal 20-year high school reunion. Amid hyper-nostalgic weirdness, our adventurous conversationalist discovers that everyone has something to say about the movies--even if it's always the same thing.

Well, here I am.

Southern California, Long Beach, some big fancy hotel: the site of my 20th high school reunion, scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. sharp.

"Gosh, it's 6:20," observes my friend, Laura, as we drive up and take our place in line, waiting for a valet. Back in high school, Laura and I were best buds, inseparable members of that unofficial class of teenager known as ugly ducklings. We sat next to each other in numerous art classes, went to countless movies, dreamed aloud of the hopeful future. She married my best friend. Later they divorced. I haven't seen her in almost 10 years, but here we are again. I'm crashing at her place in Irvine. Ted, her current husband, has bowed out of tonight's festivities owing to a thrown back. He seemed almost grateful for the excuse to stay home. He's evidently been to high school reunions.

I clamber from the car. My legs--noticeably stiff and vaguely numb--have yet to recover from the nine-hour drive down from the Bay Area. I cast a glance up and down the street, taking notice of the glittering marquee of a movie theater, just up the block. Six screens. Saving Private Ryan is playing on three of them; I can't make out the rest.

It's an encouraging sign. Literally. If the party gets too weird, there might still be time to catch a flick.

That, come to think of it, is what I did 20 years ago. On graduation night, I skipped the all-night class party and went to the movies with a few friends. Capricorn One. Opening night. During the big chase scene at the end, my date became so excited she spilled half a tub of popcorn in our laps. Those were the days.

"Welcome Downey High Class of '78," proclaims a large, conspicuous banner inside the hotel lobby. We follow the arrow, and a few moments later, step into a large room packed with 200 people, all of whom, curiously, have absolutely nothing in common with one another, beyond each being roughly 38 years old (there's a thought) and having all once attended the same crumbling, suburban high school from which Karen and Richard Carpenter once graduated! At the check-in desk, we are given name tags that display our youthful 1978 yearbook photos, a cruel trick if ever there was one, but necessary if we were going to connect the people now schmoozing and preening around us to the people who once ignored us in the hallways.

"David Templeton," calls out a voice. A short, burly man with an aggressive handshake comes up to chat. After peering at his photo, I recognize him as the little brother of the guy who used to dump me upside down in the trash can. When the conversation moves to the "So-what-do-you-do?" phase, I learn that he's now a salesperson for a printing firm. Learning that I write about movies, he immediately says, "Wow. Have you seen Saving Private Ryan? What a movie!"

Agreeing that Steven Spielberg's blockbuster World War II epic--about a group of soldiers risking their lives to locate one lost private--is possibly the best film of the summer, I ask what he liked best about it.

"Um," he thinks. "It was so damn real, as close to being in actual combat as you can get without having to actually duck bullets."

"Have you ever experienced actual combat?" I wonder.

"Well, no," he says, "but that's what I hear." He wanders off.

I consult my little guidebooks, which list the names of the graduating class, along with a few personal statistics and a description of what each person has done over the last two decades. There are a surprising number of salespeople, teachers, "senior program analysts" (whatever those are), and law enforcement officers. There appears to be a trend among women to abandon careers in lower-middle management for stay-at-home mommyhood. One woman proudly lists the names of all nine of her children.

There are a few messages from classmates who couldn't be here tonight. Scotty, who lists his occupation as "ranch hand," says he'll be busy this weekend weaning 1,500 lambs. Dennis, now residing in Oklahoma, says he will never set foot in California again because God is about to destroy the entire state, sinking it in the ocean, "up to the Arizona border."

Laura--who now owns a successful graphic design company--spots an old friend, Teha, now the most popular art teacher in the city of Brea and, like Laura, still a knockout. In school, they used to delight in painting the doors of restrooms, changing the word WOMEN to WOMBATS.

"We're going to go off and play spot-the-silicone," announces Laura, and off they go to spy on one-time cheerleaders, as the DJ plays "You Light up My Life" for the second time, finishing out a set that included "Love Will Keep Us Together" by the Captain and Tenille and that disco version of the Star Wars theme song. No one seems to be dancing.

For the next two hours, I meander through the crowd, occasionally running into someone I actually remember. Some of the best conversations are held with the desperately bored spouses of Downey High graduates.

A pattern begins to emerge.

Every time a conversation turns to our current occupations, when my interest in movies is mentioned, my fellow conversationalists--with only one exception--are quick to bring up Saving Private Ryan.

"Man," says Steve, a former water polo champion, now a bus driver. "What a movie. It's almost like being right there on the front lines. Right there. Bullets whizzing past you. What a movie."

Out of a dozen or so people who ask me about Ryan, only one person does not excitedly relate some version of the "next-best-thing-to-actual-warfare" remark. It's as if they all studied the same notes for the Small Talk Test. The one dissenter, by the way--the girlfriend of a tall CPA I don't remember at all--tells me that the movie, mainly, made her feel sad.

"It made me think about my life," she tells me simply, her voice almost drowned out by the sounds of Queen's "We Are the Champions." "I thought about the sacrifices people have made for me, what my parents gave up to raise me, to send me to college. What some of my teachers went through to try to get me to shape up and make something of myself. The effort the doctors made to fix my leg after a car accident.

"The movie makes me feel that I have a responsibility to amount to something. Though I'm not sure I have yet," she adds. She's working on it, though. She goes on to say she's just returned to school, with plans to become a nurse.

It's approaching midnight.

Too late for a movie. A small band of us decide to walk down toward the beach. Later on we'll end up at Denny's, talking about everything but Saving Private Ryan.

"See you in 10 years," someone shouts as we exit the ballroom.

Sure. Unless California's sunk into the ocean by then, of course.

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Web extra to the August 27-September 2, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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