Louise Geiger flipped the yellowing pages of her 1947 Gulf High School yearbook.
"He's gone,'' she said. "So is he. Most are gone.''
Sixteen seniors graduated that year, the sons and daughters of fishermen and farmers, for the most part. They knew New Port Richey when the waters were clear, the roads empty, the orange trees full.
And now, 65 years later, just eight of them remain. Six gathered last week at Geiger's house in Aripeka, a coastal village where time seems to stand still — a wistful illusion. They ate smoked ribs and green beans and potato salad. They couldn't resist the two kinds of chocolate cake. They gave thanks to God.
Mainly, they remembered an age of innocence, of hayrides and picnics and bonfires. They didn't know about drugs and didn't drink alcohol. Their worst behavior: occasionally sneaking a smoke. They went to Sunday school and church.
Byrum Cooper had never attended a high school reunion, partly because he traveled far and wide before retiring as an Air Force lieutenant colonel. But No. 65 sparked memories about the homestead he had left right after graduation. He drove over from Haines City with his wife, Linda. As he walked through the kitchen and into Geiger's den, he spotted a man in an easy chair.
"Kent Townsend!'' Cooper said as the two men locked eyes.
"Why so surprised?'' Townsend deadpanned. "It's only been 65 years.''
Cooper turned to Dorothy Smith, who back in the day was Dorothy Fitzgerald, a cute, bubbly cheerleader and "Most Beautiful'' in the yearbook senior superlatives.
"I was madly in love with you in high school,'' he confessed as they hugged.
"Really?'' she asked. "You never told me.''
"You were occupied,'' he replied.
It didn't take long for the "seniors'' to get comfortable with each other. They laughed at the clear image of an ill-tempered shop teacher. They recalled their earlier years at Gulf High, when grades 7 through 12 totaled only 300 students.
Kent Townsend, who lives in Lakeland after retiring as an executive with Western Auto, reminded everyone of Dec. 8, 1941, when students and teachers sat hushed near a radio in the cafeteria as President Franklin Roosevelt declared war on Japan.
The young male teachers soon went away — a reality in every American town. Dorothy Fitzgerald's parents ran a fishing business in Aripeka and lived on the Gulf of Mexico. "At night,'' she said, "we had to pull our shades and dim all lights. We had to assume the enemy was out there.''
She and Geiger, who was born in Aripeka and a member of the well-known Norfleet family, recalled military training exercises in which fighter planes strafed the rocks off Bayport.
Don White came to the reunion from Georgia. He remembered driving on a "corduroy'' State Road 54 from his family's citrus grove to New Port Richey. "They had an antiaircraft gun set up right there at (Gunn Highway),'' he said.
It's hard to imagine today in this strip of west Florida now home to several hundred thousand people, but these folks were teenagers when much of the area was without electricity. Aripeka women washed clothes in the Weeki Wachee River.
"They had a pump to draw the water up from the river,'' said Dorothy Fitzgerald, who was among the first mermaids when Weeki Wachee Springs opened in 1947. "Cleanest job I ever had,'' she joked.
"We've lived long enough to see some amazing changes,'' said Louise Luz, the former Louise Nichols. She was the best female basketball player at Gulf High in 1947 and had a long career with Sears and Montgomery Ward before retiring in Inverness.
No question, her observation is accurate. Their principal, A.H. Stevens, predicted as much in his message to students in the yearbook: "We are living in a critical period in American history. Throughout the western world, science and machine technology are changing the basic character of society.''
Sixty-five years later, that still holds true.