Memoir Book for the Class of '64

To help you with your thoughts, we asked John Klenakis to start us off with some thoughts of his own.  We think you'll enjoy them immensely, so scroll down below the input form and enjoy the read. And then be sure to come back and share some of your own!!

What I didn’t realize back then was that High School was a laboratory exposing us to many of the experiences we would again face later in life, when more would be at stake. It was our first taste experiencing real life attributes: effort, success, failure, authority figures, first love, second chances, social positioning, third chances, friendship, love again, conflict, competition, winning and losing.  An excerpt by John Klenakis

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Celebrating our 50th reunion this year on Friday, Saturday & Sunday, September 26th - 28th, 2014 at Crestview Country Club in Agawam, Massachusetts, with a Friday evening event at the Big E.  (Click on Invitation above.)

Sunday is the official reunion day at Crestview, and the times are tentatively from 1 PM to 5 PM. On Saturday, we'll have a couple of activities to choose from, including a tour of the Agawam High School and a golfing event at Crestview. And as we're on top of the Big E that final weekend, we're going to arrange a Friday evening "meetup" at the Big E.  
If you're coming from out of town, make your hotel reservations early. There are plenty of rooms now, but that will change as we get closer to the Big E.

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A Class of our time

By: John Klenakis

Recently, a classmate asked if I thought my happiest years were in high school. I said no, I thought my happiest years were the last twenty because I had  reached a stage in life where family and work were well established and the journey to get there – which is its own kind of challenging fun – was well behind me. Thinking more about it I don’t even think I would put high school in my top five lists of “happiest years” but that doesn’t mean high school didn’t have its special moments.

In 1950, Agawam (translation: “unloading place”) was still a sleepy hamlet even though there had been some aggressive in-migration right after the War. Now that we were at peace and with a depression over as well, towns like Agawam became repositories for families hoping to start anew, settle down, and begin a family. All across the country everyone was looking to leave the cities and head out to the suburbs. People desired what the cities could no longer provide: open space, affordable homeownership, and quiet surroundings. Thus was born the nation’s great suburban migration.  The Springfield area was no exception and Agawam, which grew by over 50% during the decade of the fifties, was one of the neighboring communities benefitting from Springfield’s population exodus.  The family story goes that in 1945 my Dad, awaiting discharge from the Navy, instructed my Mom to purchase their first home on Rowley Street while she was still carrying me. I had been the product of an earlier visit she made to Philadelphia where my Dad’s ship docked after serving in the Pacific. That last sentence may be too much information.

We were the baby boomer generation, the happy gift our parents gave each other to celebrate the end of World War II. We grew up at a time when the Country was growing more populous and becoming more affluent.  Since we did not experience the great World War or Depression as our parents did, it was easy to just look forward and be optimistic. But when unfettered optimism meets disappointment and tragedy, usually anger and cynicism follow. A number of years later, some in the Class of 64 joined with so many other baby boomers across the country, after witnessing many of the horrific events of the sixties unfold, and rebelled against the status quo and questioned the traditional values held by our parents.

One of those values was a sense of duty. They didn’t question authority; they worked hard, followed the rules and sought to live the American dream. Most of all, they wanted us to have a better life than they did. As far back as I can remember I was told that I was expected to go to college, something beyond the reach of my parents despite their very obvious talents. During the day my Mom worked as a librarian at the Newspaper but spent all her evenings writing poetry and wrote hundreds before her untimely death in 1965. My Father was the oldest child of ten and left high school to work with his father in a local foundry to help the family make ends meet.  He enjoyed math immensely and used this skill to eventually become the “go to” guy in the Greater Springfield Greek community for anyone needing help with their tax return.

The connection between education and a better life was not something that registered in me until the day my mother took me to pick up my Dad from work not long after a teacher had told both that I wasn’t devoting enough time with my studies. He was still a molder at a forging company, working around open fires and chemicals. It was mid-June, very hot, and we waited in the dirt parking lot while he slowly walked from the plant to the car with his shirt off, the scars on his back visible from the time he backed into a fire a few years earlier.  I didn’t know at that point what I wanted to be later in life but I sure did know what I didn’t want to be and that’s when it “clicked” that college was my way out. Yet, despite what he went through, I never heard my Father complain. Complaining wasn’t part of his generation’s DNA.  Shortly before his passing I told my Dad that story. He told me he had no memory of that day but I did notice a faint knowing smile.

Walking into AHS in 1960 was both exciting and scary. The school we now refer to as our alma mater was built five years before we entered as freshmen and the ‘Class of 64’ had the distinct honor of being the first class of the new decade.  Where we had come from - Agawam Junior High - was a much older and smaller building but at least it was comfortable territory and, more importantly, we believed we ruled there. Now, we had to adjust to new terrain and learn once again what life was like on the bottom rung of the social ladder.  But we were optimistic, and why not? We were not at war and there was prosperity everywhere, well, at least as far as we could see.

And we had a new President elected our freshman year, one who challenged the Country to move in a new direction and many of us listened to that call.  He was from our State. He was our guy.  My mother, who was active in the Agawam Democratic Committee, had met JFK while he was a Senator and I still have that picture. What stood out for me was that he was the first national politician that didn’t look old. He looked the way we wanted to look and spoke the way we wanted to speak. We all wanted to be him and the girls all wanted to be like Jackie. We were so naïve about national and world affairs and certainly had no idea what impact the events unfolding in the next few years would have on us and how they would affect the rest of our lives. 

But, already, things were different.  I remember when JFK appointed a woman as the White House Physician I turned to a buddy and asked: “how is she going to check things down there”? More importantly, JFK followed up on a campaign promise and put into effect a new program designed to send American citizens all over the world to help improve the lives of people in distressed countries. It was called the Peace Corps. Alan Shephard became the first American to travel into space, one month after the Russians accomplished the feat so, not to be outdone, JFK announces to the World the U.S.A’s intention to put a man on the moon before the end of the sixties.  But not all the news was hopeful as we learn of a CIA backed failed invasion of Cuba. Closer to home we are witness to the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement as freedom riders get arrested in Mississippi for “disturbing the peace”.

I don’t remember how much I was thinking about these things my freshman year. I just wanted to be with my friends, have a few laughs, play sports, and be part of a group. Then, when I became a sophomore I could do it all over again. What I didn’t realize back then was that High School was a laboratory exposing us to many of the experiences we would again face later in life, when more would be at stake. It was our first taste experiencing real life attributes: effort, success, failure, authority figures, first love, second chances, social positioning, third chances, friendship, love again, conflict, competition, winning and losing. Did I mention love?  And, of course, how you performed in each of these would help determine the future ahead. So, not much was at stake, right? But I didn’t see the larger picture back then. Who did? Well, maybe a few. At that time my only concern was whether I would be alive at the end of Mr. Kibbe’s freshman football practice each night.

Some excelled in this laboratory because they caught on right away or followed the instruction of parents who understood these things but might not have known how to communicate in a way we understood or relate to which helps us understand that the phrase “because I said so” was part of the universal parent language of the time.  Others of us would get it in future life laboratories because part of the genius of America is that (even more) second chances is built into many parts of the system.

As freshman we didn’t know the terrain and quickly learned our place was with other freshman although, if you scratched beneath the surface, integration with upperclassmen did occur sporadically.  Some classmates broke through the “class ceiling” and hung around (does that term even exist today?) with upperclassmen including (gasp) seniors. When we occasionally heard of a freshman co-ed dating upperclassmen, not kind words were said but deep down there was admiration for her adventurous spirit. I remember getting a “crush” – by the way, what a strange term – on a senior co-ed and all she had done to earn my affection was to star in a school play. I think I must have followed her in the hallways for two weeks. It’s a good thing they didn’t have stalking laws back then. Three years later things came full circle as the freshman sister of a classmate told me in front of her girlfriends that she had a “crush” on me. Surprisingly, I didn’t know what to say in return.

We survived our freshman year and, in the fall of 1961, moved into the ranks of varsity as sophomores. Since we were assimilating more into the general population I hoped things would get easier but pure hope provides no predictive outcome. It turns out we were challenged even more: by parents, teachers, coaches, even friends. Social groupings took place, not that they didn’t before, but now everyone was watching. And, who you knew and who you hung around with (there’s that term again) was planted on you like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, only this mark glowed like neon in the dark. To this day when I reminisce with classmates someone will say: “oh, you hung around with…….”

The world was rapidly changing and some of it was not favorable to our side. During our sophomore year there was a crisis in Europe because the USSR was not happy so many of its East German citizens were leaving for West Germany. A diplomatic confrontation ensued and the Berlin Wall was constructed by the USSR.  All across the USA people began to construct fallout shelters in their basements. Less noticeable at the time but an act that would have even more profound consequences for us later was the placement of 18,000 U.S.A. “military advisors” in a faraway little country in Southeast Asia no one ever heard of: Vietnam.  At home we found a new hero in a Marine Corps pilot named John Glenn who became the first American to orbit the earth aboard Friendship 7.

Those were the great issues of the day but at the time mine were a bit different: what could I do to get Mrs. Sherman off my back about my missing Algebra homework?; what would Coach Leonardi and my football teammates think if I went out for the school play?; who would I run into at Friendly’s on Friday night?; and would ‘so and so’ want to go “steady?” (one of the great terms of the sixties now abandoned).  For the most part, we were not really socially aware and had no idea how world events would have such an impact on how it would affect our lives and who we would later become. In this respect I am not sure we were that much different than other predominately white suburban high school students across the country or, for that matter, previous generations.

But we had something previous generations didn’t, rock n roll. We called it music. Our parents called it something else. It occupied our time and attention and gave us a reason to socialize and, for the better dancers among us, express ourselves in motion while others gazed in admiration. New performers on the national stage emerged almost daily and we were even introduced to new dances: Chubby Checker’s The Twist became a national sensation and Joey Dee and the Starliters almost topped it soon afterwards with The Peppermint Twist. Even Dee Dee Sharp had a minor hit on her hands with Mashed Potato Time. This was the year the Shirelles made it to the charts with Soldier Boy, Gene Chandler sang The Duke of Earl, The Crystals gave us He’s a Rebel, and even good ole angelic Shelley Fabares from the Donna Reed Show had a hit with Johnny Angel. Every Friday night many of us would gather at Robinson Park Elementary School to, presumably, socialize and dance. And, some did. Others of us kept our backs to the wall wondering if we should trek all the way to the other side and, if we did, would we be greeted with acceptance or rejection? Either way, there was always Friendly’s afterwards.

When the doors opened to greet us as Junior’s in the fall of 1962 the Soviet Union had just agreed to arm Cuba. Castro declared himself a Marxist Leninist and vowed to make Cuba a socialist paradise. There was no way JFK could allow the Soviet Union to place land based missiles 90 miles from our shore so an embargo was ordered. We saw this last event at the time as the forces of good versus evil and believed it could lead to the end of the world because we were staring down the Russians. It was Kennedy vs. Khruschev, and the missiles of October. I remember being in Mrs. Hallbourg’s math class when she announced that she was never as afraid as she was at that moment. A chill went down my spine. This was a TEACHER talking, not just my parents.

Other events were taking place at home as well that were just as profound as the world stage. In Birmingham, Mississippi, Dr. King and his followers were arrested for “parading without a permit” and King wrote his letter from a Birmingham jail stating that people have a moral duty to break unjust laws.  I remember learning that a black man (James Meredith), took his case all the way to the Supreme Court for the right to attend the University of Mississippi and that sit-ins were occurring at lunch counters all across the South because people of color were denied service. I can’t say I was surprised to learn this because when I was about 10 years old, my parents took me to visit my Dad’s sister in North Carolina. At that time you had to take a ferry for part of the trip and, while on the ferry, I went to get a drink of water at a fountain but was pulled away by my parents because the sign above said: “Colored only”. I remember them telling me I couldn’t use that fountain and also that they had a great deal of difficulty telling me why.

By the time spring arrived in 1963, the Class of 1964 had established a familiarity with our overall school environment and AHS began to feel like a place we were both part of and part of us. Underclassmen treated us with deference and we began to engage teachers in a more casual way, as if they were an older, friendly mentor rather than the person who stood in front of the class stiffly handing out information. The Class of 1963 was on their way out the door and we were the very willing rulers in waiting. Things began to feel easier but new pressures were coming our way as some began plotting what they would be doing after high school. Visits to colleges began to occur and, for the first time, we had to think of what life would be like separated from each other.

But we continued to dance and the music became even better. We were introduced to groups influenced by the California beach life like The Beach Boys (Surfin USA and Surfer girl) and Jan and Dean (Surf City). Female groups were beginning to get recognized and songs by the Chiffons (He’s so fine), The Crystals (Then he kissed me) and the Angels (My boyfriend’s back) were hits but none compared, in my mind, to Martha and the Vandella’s singing Heat Wave although the Ronettes came close with Be My Baby. The events of the times were making their way into music as folk groups like Peter Paul and Mary (Blowin’ in the Wind) were gaining notoriety but not yet a lot of traction.

When the doors opened for the first time in September of 1963 it felt like the keys belonged to us. Now we were fully engaged and the destiny of all things AHS was in our hands. If we lost a big game we could no longer blame upperclassmen. If the school play didn’t go well, we owned it. We had to perform, not just in the classroom but beyond as well.  A Year Book had to be produced, proms needed to be planned, and a graduation had to be performed. And we were both the planners and the stars in every production.  Those who actively – I was not one – participated in the preparation of these events probably never received the thanks from the rest of us they deserved but they did get a lasting reward because acquiring those skills at an early age is truly the gift that keeps on giving. 

I have to say something about football, not because I played but because it has always been such an important part of Agawam High. We had a good team but not a championship one. We won more games than we lost – thank God – and we beat West Side. I have so many stories about football but what I took away from it is that I underwent a very challenging experience with a group of guys I liked and succeeded, something no one can ever take away from us. Practices were brutal and games were intense. You really learn about the importance of hard work, sacrifice, cooperation, and competing at a high level.  I don’t think, until now, I ever truly appreciated the gift that Mr. Leonardi and Mr. Kibbe gave me (us) through this experience and how it affected and influenced me throughout my life. It helped me get through some difficult days that lay ahead.

We were in the midst of a very respectable season. Our record was 4 wins and 2 losses and there was just one game to go with conference leader Chicopee who was undefeated. We had conducted a scrimmage with them earlier in the year and beat them up pretty good so in late November some of us were looking forward to – in our minds – the upcoming upset. I was headed to football practice when Mr. Petrone passed me and asked if I had heard the news that the President had been shot. I had not. I walked in a kind of stunned silence to football practice and got dressed in a silent locker room. After we practiced for about fifteen minutes Coach called us together, said he didn’t feel right with us practicing, and told us to go home and be with our parents. I kept hoping that there was some mistake or that he would miraculously recover and be okay. That night when Walter Cronkite announced he had died I saw the anguish on my Mother’s face.  In the subsequent three days of TV watching we witnessed JFK’s funeral, LBJ’s oath of office as President on an airplane with Jackie by his side, and Oswald’s assassination. It all came at us too forcefully and too quickly.

Everything else that happened in high school pales in comparison to that moment. That final game with Chicopee was cancelled and never replayed. Like every other Class of 64 across the country, our Yearbook was dedicated to JFK. In the subsequent years we would endure thousands of lives lost in Vietnam, riots in the streets, campus bombings, the next two Presidents leaving in disgrace, and a growing mistrust of Government which continues to exist to this day.  One can only imagine how different History would have unfolded had this horrific event not occurred.

We grieved but at the same time we had to move on. As difficult as JFK’s death was to overcome we still had to get ready for life. We knew that in the last half of our senior year we would have to begin to let go of AHS and think about what would come next. Some would head out to jobs, others to college, and still others would go into the service. Many of us would only see each other again at reunions and the experiences we had – so rich at the time – would be reduced to memories. As tragic as some events were it did not take away from the reality that our four years together shaped who we would become and instill values that would last a lifetime.

And it’s not as if the events affecting our lives decided to take a break. A few months later, in his 1964 State of the Union speech, President Johnson declared a national war on poverty. About this time Soviet jet fighters shot down an American jet fighter on a training mission that strayed into East German territory, killing all three crew members. In the spring of 1963 Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara declares that the U.S. Government intended to increase military and economic aid to Vietnam in the war against communism.

It was easier to understand our fight with the Soviet Union because it could all be classified as good versus evil. What was going on at home was not so easy to comprehend because we lived in what we were taught was an open society that valued freedom, democracy and opportunity yet here we were listening to speakers on the nightly news telling the world that America oppressed people, conducting “sit-ins” at lunch counters and marching in protest all the while singing “We shall overcome”. That wasn’t the America I knew. Mr. Carbone tried to enlighten us by inviting a Professor at Springfield College who was the local NAACP leader to speak to our Problems of Democracy class about the fight for equality. At the time, the NAACP was pressing in a militant way for change so I thought we would hear someone angry, emotional, and strident in tone. We got just the opposite. His was a reasoned, well thought out presentation on the promise versus reality in America for persons of color. Another shock to my system.

These are issues that, upon reflection, can be viewed from the experience that fifty additional years brings but, back then, it was all new to us and our context at that time was the somewhat sheltered upbringing we had. Perhaps as a residue of our own parents value system we believed and trusted authority figures and “the system”. Thus, those protesting authority – no matter the reason – became suspect. In order for our minds to embrace change we had to be convinced that those we respected did as well.  At some point in the fight for Civil Rights the Federal Government changed its posture from passive observer to active supporter on behalf of those protesting conditions in the South and for this 17 year old kid from Massachusetts, it made all the difference in the world. The entire south, I reasoned, had long ago lost its collective mind and the Federal Government was going to make things right. I was no longer angry at the angry voices. Now, I thought, I could understand their cry.

If music had a hold on us before, in our senior year it became almost an obsession.  It was no longer just rock n roll. We began hearing of something called the “Motown Sound” emanating from Detroit that brought us groups like Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, The Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, The Marvelettes, and the Miracles. And then, things REALLY changed. I remember being picked up on a weekend night and after I entered the car and said hell-o I didn’t hear hell-o back, just a “shut-up, the song is coming on”. When I gave a puzzled look one of them said, “Greek, you got to hear this” and that was the first time I heard the Beatles sing I want to hold your hand. At first listen, I wondered what the big deal was but later that evening at the Friday night dance, I was hooked. And, that’s when things really got crazy. All of a sudden, all of the guys were growing out their hair to look like the Fab Four. I had the required haircut for all the football players, a “butch”, and just when I was thinking of growing it out I ran into Coach Leonardi in the hallway while another student was walking by who had already adopted a Beatles like haircut. Coach went on to tell me his opinion of guys growing out their hair and that was the moment I changed my mind about doing it. I stuck with the “butch”. Even back then I displayed enormous courage.

Yes, we had great music but our time for dancing together was coming to an end. Graduation was upon us and we would be drifting out of AHS in separate directions. Some would go off to college or technical school, others would start a career early, and some would enlist in the armed forces.  When you are in high school it’s impossible to predict where you will be fifty years later and what kind of person you will become. We all have aspirations to do something in particular and take steps to get there but other things happen in-between that forces a change in direction. The change can be temporary or permanent. We are no exception. We have all travelled different paths; have different beliefs, and value systems. In some respect what we achieved in life, and how we got here, is not really that important. What is important is that we went through a time together that was critical in defining who we are as individuals and that these seminal events played a major role in shaping our lives for better or worse. It’s our shared experience and no one or thing can take that away from us.

Welcome to the 1964 Class reunion.