Saturday, December 17, 2016

Reflections on hockey reunion


It happened in the late winter of 1958.  I was 16 and a junior at Cambridge Latin.  Eighteen kids who didn't know any better had just won the Massachusetts state hockey championship and, inexplicably, I was one of them.  It was a huge and defining moment in all of our lives.  Fourteen Irish kids -- mostly first or second generation Americans -- two Italians, a Saint George, two Quimbys (vaguely threatening English-sounding names), and a Remelka!  Many on the team were from my neighborhood corner or from menacing corners close by.

        We had played together on ponds as kids and learned a lot about our relative abilities on the ice.  I was an eager participant, but had not the remotest idea of trying out for the high school team.  I was a scrawny kid with no confidence, living in my very private and troubled world.  One day on the corner in a spontaneous act of kindness -- rare in our world of survival and suppressed emotions ‑‑ Tucker Dooley told me that he thought I skated well and should try out for the team.  I was truly stunned.  Tucker was a gifted player, a leader, and someone to whom I listened.  I managed the courage to try, and, to my astonishment, made the team.

It was now nearly 50 years later and the team was coming back together.  Fifty years is a long time.  There have only been 40 such spans since Christ, 20 since Eric the Red invaded Greenland; 10 since Columbus discovered America (at least the nuns told us he did), 3 since Lincoln died, 2 since the Wright Brothers lifted off, and 1 since us!  What lay in store?

We all met on Friday morning at the Fresh Pond municipal golf course parking lot in Cambridge to prepare for the day's activities -- a trip to see the mayor and a visit to the high school.  The worst was now over -- we had met, eyed each other, and survived the experience.  I recognized everyone.  The sizes and shapes were vastly different, but deep into the eyes I could see the same person.  Recall is an amazing thing!

The tone was immediately set when Bagger Higgins gave each of us a gimme cap emblazoned in the school colors.  On the front it said "Cambridge Latin Hockey;" on the side was "State Champs 1958."  Mike Sugrue then gave to each of us -- right there in the parking lot ‑‑ a reproduction of the picture of the team taken with the mayor in 1958.  I was moved.  It wasn't so much that the gifts were wonderful (which they were), but that Bagger and Mike were willing to show they cared.  Something had changed.

We then went by van to Cambridge City Hall.  While Harvard "owned" Cambridge, the city government seemed somehow to still be the turf of the Irish and Italians.  Walter Sullivan, the mayor, and a young councilman named Dellicui greeted us.  Hell, they were the grandchildren of the very same families who ruled the City when we were kids and they closely resembled their forebearers ‑‑ genes work.  It was truly surreal.  The mayor was gracious, gave us each a key to the City, a proclamation declaring something or other, and posed with us for an exact remake of the 1958 photo that Mike had given us earlier.  The Mayor seemed so young that I wanted to pat him on the head!

At the high school we met the hockey coach and some bewildered members of his team, who showed us around.  The highlight of the school visit was learning of the rediscovery of the plaque awarded the team in 1958.  The search, let the previous week by our own Bob Meehan, was of some magnitude and difficulty.  At last it was unearthed in the back of a trophy case in the basement of the building.  I had no idea of its previous existence, but in any event the plaque was now again available for true historians of the game.  We, of course, insisted that it accompany us for the balance of the weekend as our own Stanley Cup ‑‑ there was, however, no parade.

The next day it was off to Bob Meehan's for a cookout.  Bob had a place in Boxford ‑‑ or was it Oxford ‑‑ in any event, it was one of those towns invented since we left.  Bob's house was on a lovely lot, heavily wooded, with much grass to cut ‑‑ perfect for the event.  Again, the generosity of spirit was overwhelming.  Bob had put together a suitably engraved puck for each of us, a sweat shirt that proclaimed in at least three different ways that we were the Champs, a booklet with stories and pictures of our team in action as shown on the Boston sport pages of the time, and a banner proclaiming our feat.

There was surprisingly little alcohol consumed that afternoon; we were not distracted by Saturday football as we might have been at home; we paused for a moment in memory of our two teammates who had died.  We talked eagerly with each other as dusk fell and we remembered.  What surprised me was the depth of caring and acceptance of each other that seemed to me to pervade the day.

The weekend was not an epiphany.  The stars did not align, lives weren't changed forever.  It was simply an important moment in time.  A small, but important, reprieve.  Perhaps the biological lowering of our collective testosterone levels created the appropriate environment.  In any event, there was no one else to impress, no person or thing to conquer.  We just were.  Happy to see each other, connecting, and listening.  Like many, I am not certain what I truly believe or what to make of this state of being called life.  Nonetheless, a number of things came into somewhat more focus that reunion weekend.  Most importantly, that my past really happened and it mattered.  I heard others talking of people and events that I, too, recalled.  Others who apparently cared for me back then ‑‑ but didn't realize it, or at least couldn't show it ‑‑ had suffered, failed, and succeeded along with me.  My past had been validated.

Who were we?  We were the insecure kids from the corners who were now grown men facing the last quarter of life (if we were lucky).  Most of us had in some manner been pushed out the door by our fathers, or perhaps more broadly our culture, and in one form or another were told to work hard, attain success, maintain integrity, and most of all earn respect.  I suppose nearly all of us followed those values with various levels of success. 

We, of course, all had now experienced the turmoil and triumphs of a life; that eternal struggle aptly named by the nuns as "this veil of tears."  In a small way the weekend suggested additional values to complete the message of our youth.  Add caring, empathy, understanding, acceptance ‑‑ all, I supposed, as insufficient ways of saying love.  Indeed  the weekend may have been  an epiphany!

A final reflection: was the current moment in any way connected to that moment nearly half a century ago when 20 kids participated in their own ways in a success they could never have dreamed of?  Did this formative experience give our psyches, our spirits, our collective souls a glimpse of hope?  Did the collective experience actually affect the way we lived our lives?  My guess is, it did.

Maybe this is an old fool doing what old fools have done forever ‑‑ view the past through the evasive and misleading cloud of time.  Nonetheless, these two moments in time led me to a conclusion expressed only as an Irishman can--it hadn't been so bad.


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