Ernest Hooper: My 30th high school reunion was filled with joy and sorrow

Christopher Orion Callaway walked into my high school reunion last Friday with a look that belied his years.

Clean shaven and well built, he stood out without trying. He wore a simple black T-shirt and a pair of jeans, and sported a physique honed not by pumping iron in a gym but by working in a body shop and hunting and fishing.

Chris looked like someone who would help Patrick Swayze throw unruly customers out of a roadhouse bar, or a guy you would want on your side in a back alley. I spotted him in the back of the room and thought time had treated him well.

But he never left an impression on me when we walked the halls of Tallahassee's Amos P. Godby High School 30 years ago. He was a classmate, not a friend. Maybe we took PE together, maybe he sat across from me in Mr. Winger's construction class. I just can't remember.

What I can remember is how he appeared to be in good spirits at the reunion. We all reveled in the reminiscing and the reconnecting. Even our old principal, now state Sen. Bill Montford, came out for the event.

Chris got together with Wayne Vick and Fred Hewett, two of his childhood friends, and they took up where they left off three decades ago. Wayne asked about Chris' parents and brother.

"He told me his parents still lived in the same house," Wayne said. "He told me to go by and see his mother. He said his brother, Bruce, was in the Special Forces and had been in every war. I could tell he was proud of Bruce. During our conversation, he told me twice more to go see his mother."

Meanwhile, another classmate and one of my closest friends, Mike Cobb, had flown all the way from Hawaii to relive the good times and create some more. Mike works as a certified financial planner in the day and sings in a band at night because, he says, everybody in Hawaii works two jobs.

A lot of us wanted to hear Mike sing as he used to back in high school. And if you know Mike, you know he wanted to deliver. So when the meet and greet broke up, we ventured out to Julie's Place, a popular Tallahassee spot known for karaoke.

Sure enough, Mike took the stage, we applauded and I flashed back to a memorable day in the gym when Mike serenaded the vice principal with Three Times a Lady.

As the night wound down, we started our goodbyes, and that familiar question began to be bandied about: "Are you okay to drive?" The only time I spoke to Chris the entire night came late in the evening and in my untrained estimation, he seemed fine.

Another classmate spoke to him just before he drove off in his pickup truck with Fred Hewett, who needed a ride to the home where he was spending the night.

She, too, thought Chris was lucid and clear.

The next morning we awoke to the news that Chris had lost control of his truck and died in a crash on Interstate 10. Fred survived, suffering only minor injuries. Police have not determined if alcohol was a factor.

For the rest of the weekend, Godby High's Class of '82 carried heavy hearts.

You go through life knowing you will experience highs and lows, but never in my 48 years have such mixed emotions collided in such a stunning manner.

We were so sad about Chris' death, so glad that Fred survived. We were so thrilled to see old friends, so shocked that Chris was gone.

I've spent all week trying to unravel some meaning from what happened, only to end up lost in life's mysteries. Some may make judgmental assessments, but it seems the deeper message lies in appreciating every moment and treasuring every friendship — whether it's your best friend or just an acquaintance.

Chris did just that, getting one last chance to see old classmates. His obituary said he lived life with fierce intensity, never wasting a moment.

Wayne did indeed go see Chris' mother the day after Chris' death, just as Chris had asked. She said Wayne's visit made her day.

And in the end I realized it's okay to enjoy the company of your friends and feel sad about a classmate's death. We grieved together.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper: My 30th high school reunion was filled with joy and sorrow

07/26/12 [Last modified: Thursday, July 26, 2012 4:30am]

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