Roger Aikin's Speech


Remarks at the Corvallis High School Class of 1965 50th reunion
August  7, 2015
Roger C. Aikin

[Here is the text of the talk I gave at the reunion, with some additions]

Many thanks to our tireless organizers, Susan DeMeules, Sharon Edwards , and all the others.  Let’s give them a big hand!

A turtle was walking home late one night and was mugged by three snails.  They roughed him up and took his wallet.  A policeman was summoned and asked the turtle if he could identify the three snails that attacked him, and the turtle answered, “I don’t know.  It all happened so fast!”

That’s the way I feel about the last 50 years—It all happened so fast!

I am your speaker tonight, but I have no particular claim to this privilege.  I am not famous or a celebrity—or even notorious.  I don’t know if we have any real celebrities in our class except Benny Masters, who didn’t show up.  He’s probably making a movie at some exotic location and messing around with some starlet.  It’s just as well: you ladies would be all over him.    

At first I thought I would try to do a funny “after dinner” speech, and indeed there is lots of good stuff out on the web—like this:

1965: Long hair                                           2015: Longing for hair
1965: Free love                                           2015: Free WiFi
1965: Rolling Stones                                  2015: Kidney Stones
1965: Acid rock                                           2015: Acid reflux
1965: Going to a new, hip joint               2015: Receiving a new hip joint

But a little of that goes a long way.  


Rather than tell you what I think, I wanted to know what you think about the past 50 years.  So I sent out some questions about what happened in the last 50 years to the world and to us and what it means, and many of you responded with thoughtful answers. 

It SEEMs like a lot has changed.  But you know what the French say—“Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”  “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”   What has changed, and what hasn’t?

We’re all about 68.  How old do we feel?   That depends.  On a good day about 30.  On a bad day about 100.  As I look around this room and I think that most of you are pretty well preserved.  Some of us—not so much.  Some of the men have aged well, but generally, I think the women look better. In fact, ladies, you look HOT!  But then, you make an effort!

What was your favorite year?   Depends.   A surprising number of people picked this year, others sometime in the late 1960’s—you couldn’t quite remember, probably because of all that acid you dropped. 

Are we happier now than we were in 1965?  Most of us say yes.  We’ve had disappointments and shocks, but we’ve survived.  Our definition of happiness has changed:  a day when your back doesn’t hurt and the kids telephone.   

We take great joy in our families.  Some of us have been married almost 50 years, and have children, grandchildren—even great grandchildren.   Some of us are still waiting.

What do you miss most—or least—about high school?  As this reunion approached, I’m sure many of us thought back to our high school days and the memories came flooding back and we said—NOOO!   But really, I think we treated each other pretty well, in spite of the pain and embarrassment we sometimes caused each other.  It’s time to let it go.  Remember the good times.

Of course we have changed.   We’re  forgetful .  Remember how your grandmother used to go through three or four names before she would get to you?  “Now Bob—John—Jim—Roger!”   We’re starting to do that. 

Yesterday I was talking to someone at the reception, but I couldn’t read his nametag.  (The picture gave me no clue.) Then I realized he was one of my best friends, and I said “forgive me, but I can’t remember your name.”  And he said, “How soon do you need to know?”  If this has happened to you, you know that soon something remarkable happens: the years melt away, and we start to look like we did 50 years ago.  And I don’t think our personalities have changed all that much. 

We have seen many superficial changes in the past 50 years:

I have more material possessions
than I ever thought I would have—or need. 
50 years ago we would have called ourselves “middle class.” But we’ve seen “middle class creep,” if I can coin a phrase.   I was happy with two pairs of shoes, and buying a bicycle or a winter coat or an LP record was a big deal.  We had one car, and one small TV.  How many TVs do you have now?  I thought people who lived on Witham Hill were rich.  30 grand for a house?!  My son can’t find a house in LA for less than a million.  Everything is about 10 times more expensive (except college, which is way more expensive!), but you can still get a good TV for $200.  My monthly data bill is more than it cost us to live for a month in college.

We have travelled all over the world.  There are many accounts and pictures on the class website. 

We’ve certainly seen a lot of “history”:   the moon landing (Except—that was all a hoax!—never happened!), the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war.   Except—it started again!  What is it with these Russians?!  All I know about Russia is that we cheer for Peter they cheer for the wolf.  In fact, we came THAT close at least twice to getting blown up, and we lived with the threat of nuclear war until we were over forty, but somehow we’ve survived—so far.

But compare our experience to our grandparents’--the class of 1915:  They saw: the first automobile, the first airplane, jet travel, and the moon landing.  They witnessed the birth of electricity, refrigerators, radio, movies, recorded music, TV, modern medicine, and of course, the Great Depression and two world wars.  And, if they lived long enough, they saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the internet.  We can’t top that. 

In fact, we have lived in a time of remarkable peace and stability, relatively speaking.  There have been some nasty wars, but nothing like our parents’ generation.  Many of you served in the military, but I am not aware that any of our classmates died in any war, which is very unusual.  There is a memorial in a church in northern France that lists the casualties of World War I from that town, and it includes every male in the class of 1914.  (They called it “The Great War”—not knowing that there would be a long “half-time” before Part II.)  But now we keep getting into wars and they mostly turn out badly. Somebody said that war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.   

The rise of international terrorism is very troubling, but terrorism has always existed: one man’s terrorist is another man’s revolutionary.  The problem is that now there are so many more effective ways to deliver terror, like your shoes or your underwear.   One assassin on hashish with a sword you can handle.

(And by the way I don’t think we are fighting “ideology” at all.  The ideology is just the enabler, the excuse.  These are simply alienated young people who want to be part of a group and do some damage—like we were in high school.  If you asked them what their ideology was, they would probably get it wrong, and if you told them tomorrow that they had a new ideology they would say, “Great, who do I kill today?”  That is just my personal opinion.)

In fact, statistically, the world is actually much more peaceful and safe that it was 50 years ago.  See the article on the great website VOX: “20 ways the world is getting better.”  Fewer people are dying in wars and purges, and violent crime in the USA is way down.  Billions of people no longer suffer from many diseases because some are completely (or almost) eradicated, including Smallpox and Polio.  But there are still terrible wars, atrocities, and millions of refugees.   What else is new?

In our country, we’ve made a lot of progress in equality of race and gender.  In some other countries, not so much.  We’re still not there yet, but a lot has changed, especially for women.  Gender issues are certainly more complicated! When we were in high school there were only two genders, which was difficult enough.  Now Facebook gives you a choice of over 70 gender descriptions. 

We have seen revolutionary advances in knowledge—physics, astrophysics, biology, geology, the human genome, anthropology, and history.  There have been great improvements in public health around the world, and medicine has been revolutionized.  Many of us in this room are probably alive, or at least walking, who would not have been 50 years ago.  How many artificial joints are there in the room?  

For that matter, how many joints are there in the room?  Who would ever have thought that weed would become legal?  I could be wrong but I don’t think that many of us were doing weed in high school, although we were later in college—or so I’m told.  Now all you midnight tokers can come out of the closet.

Many of you say that “the environment” or “sustainability” is our most serious challenge.  Remember the “Population Bomb”?  Well, it didn’t quite happen—yet.  In 1965 world population was about 3 billion; now it is 7 billion, and it will be 9 billion in 20 years.  They are building a city in China for 130 million people.  Yet the average age of Americans is over 40, and in some countries like Germany and Japan over 45.  The average age in Africa is under 20.  But it is not the 20 year olds in Africa that are rapidly using up the resources and energy of Mother Earth. We have lived in “the age of fossil fuels,” an age that must end someday.  It is now obvious to most of us that we are rapidly making the earth uninhabitable, and I just can’t fathom the people who still think that we “rule” Mother Nature.  Like Carl Sagan said, the earth is just a “Pale Blue Dot” and we are not going to be trading it in for a better place to live any time soon.

Obviously, the way news is delivered is totally different.  Now we can read several newspapers with our morning coffee—from around the world in any language. We still can’t do anything about the mess the world is in, but we know more about it. And we don’t just read a little column in the paper, now we see it in video.  In 1965 one million people in Indonesia suspected of Communist sympathies were massacred, and we knew this because we read a little article in the newspaper—and said, “too bad.” Today we see atrocities in video and even in real time, and we’re incensed. In 1965 there was a half an hour of news on TV.  Now the news is 24/7—if you can call it “news.”  Everything is moving faster. 

As you all said, the internet has changed everything.  We grew up in an age of books and libraries—and tracking down a reliable fact took some work.   Now you can answer almost any question in 10 seconds:  Google even knows what you want to ask before you do.  The problem is that there will be several answers to your question and half of them will be lies, because there are no “gatekeepers.”  In 1965 you could find looney or repugnant books or wacky ideas in print, but you had to go out of your way, and libraries wouldn’t buy the stuff.  Now weird conspiracy nonsense or poisonous evil is just as accessible as the reliable information.  There are websites for all manner of political, scientific, social, racial, historical, or religious perversion.  We have Birthers, Boothers, and 9-11 Truthers  (sounds like a Beach Boys song), and all kinds of deniers. You would think we would be better informed but we seem to be just more stubbornly misinformed.  Not to mention pornography.  Who would ever have thought that pornography  would be so accessible?!---or so I am told. 

Social media have revolutionized “relationships”.  Good or bad?   I did NOT ask how many “relationships” we’ve been in.  Too painful.  And how exactly do you count them?  Like John Candy said:  “We were having sex, but there was no “relationship”!   

Everybody’s lives are fair game in this new world.  What happened to “none of your business’?  There is no privacy on-line, and no secrets.  People keep forgetting this, especially politicians: “Hi, I’m a member of congress, and here is a picture of my private parts!  And please don’t share it with anyone else.” 

The internet has proved AGAIN that anything someone can invent for the good of mankind somebody else can mess up.  We have identity theft, scams, cyber attacks, and trolling.  (There is a huge building in St. Petersburg, Russia, run by some shadowy arm of the Russian government, where hundreds of people do nothing but troll and put our misinformation with the apparent purpose of simply poisoning the internet.  They even faked a chemical spill in Louisiana, complete with fake press releases, videos, and tweets.)

It’s getting harder to keep up with all the new tech.  There’s no app for that. At least we learned penmanship and typing with all ten fingers.

The technology of communication and information today is something we could never have imagined in 1965.  There was a great TV show called “The Technology of Star Trek” about which of those sci-fi gadgets have actually been invented or might be.  We can’t do teleportation yet (and if we ever do, make sure there is not a fly in there with you), but we have phones that talk to us.  Remember Captain Kirk?  “Computer.”  “Working!”   Now we have Siri, who apparently also has a sense of humor.  (Ask Siri if she has a boyfriend.)

Television:  Do you remember your old television?  Four channels and you had to wait 30 seconds while the antenna turned from Portland to Eugene.  And what was on prime time?  Westerns!  Parables of Good and Evil.  It was the Cold War.  We needed role models:  men—manly men—manly men with big guns.

Now there are 500 channels.  I’m tempted to say that there is still “nothing on,” but there are wonderful things in drama, education, and music of every genre.  (Jerry Seinfeld says that men don’t care what is on TV. We just want to know what else is on.)  

Pay TV?  Who would pay for it?  In college we easily lived on what I pay for data each month. 

Movies:  Remember when you actually had to go to a movie theater?  And some of them were really bad—like the teenage beach blanket movies with their sappy songs. (I’m gonna hurl!)   I don’t know if modern movies are any better—just faster paced.  Most movies now are video games about superpower fantasies, apocalyptic dystopias, or vampires.

(I’m sure you have favorite movies and scenes.  But I think the most significant moment in movies in the past 50 years was the scene in Dances With Wolves where the soldiers have arrested Dunbar (Kevin Kostner) and are taking him away in a wagon.  Then the Indians attack—like we saw a hundred times when we were young.  Except this time we realize that we’re rooting for the Indians

The past 50 years have been the great age of the fine arts—if you care.  (And I don’t mean to denigrate those of you who don’t care.  And if you don’t care, “denigrate” means “put down.”)  We have seen an explosion of symphony orchestras, theater, opera, dance, art museums, blockbuster exhibits, great architecture.  However, there is not as much interest in the humanities as there was, at least among college student majors: In 1966 the T S Eliot (a poet, if you don’t remember, and I don’t mean to denigrate those of you who don’t remember) filled a large basketball arena.  Not today.  Enrollment in the humanities has dropped drastically—but mostly among women, who can now pursue other careers. There certainly are not as many jobs in the humanities as there were 40 years ago.

Music:  We were lucky, the music of our youth turned out to be “classic.” Many of these rockers are still around—barely (unless they joined the “27 club”).  The Rolling Stones just went on tour again!  They are older than we are!  And they always did look like death warmed over.  One of these days they are going to come out on the stage with WALKERS!  (Shuffling Jack Flash?)

So—are we more optimistic today?  A surprising number of you say yes, but we are still realists. Like Lily Tomlin said, “No matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up.”  

Human beings now have the knowledge and the means to make a world of peace and prosperity, but we still suffer from hatred, superstition, and ignorance.   Some of us live in unparalleled comfort and prosperity that our parents could hardly imagine, but most of us don’t. 

There always seem to be two futures: one is rational, technological, global, connected, and caring.  The other is greedy, hateful, and ignorant, and determined to destroy everything that humans have built or achieved.   We don’t know which one will prevail.   

Well, as Gilda Radner said, “It’s always something.”

What advice would you give to the next generation?  Follow your dreams, and then--move to higher ground.  Remember that old joke? Why is Howard Hughes buying land in Las Vegas?  Because he wants beachfront property!  Maybe we will have to “tie up the boat in Idaho.”  Here in Oregon, if it is not rising sea level from climate change that gets us, it will be The Big One, and “everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”

But we’re trying, with alternative energy and efficient cars.  Still, if each of us drove about 20,000 miles a year on average for the past 50 years—just a guess—that is about 50,000 gallons of gas—or 6 tanker trucks of fuel, or roughly 30  miles of tanker trucks bumper to bumper, just for the Class of ‘65.

I asked how many cars we have owned.  Most of us about a dozen, but some over 40!  That’s a lot of steel.  Strangely, a couple of people said that their favorite car was also their worst pile of junk—sort of like that girlfriend or boyfriend you had way back when: you knew they were going to act up, but they were SO MUCH FUN.  Not gonna last, though.  In fact, some the best relationships we’ve ever had have been with our cars.

So—what has not changed.  

Corvallis.  Every time I drive into Corvallis I think that I’m entering a time warp.  There are supposed to be more people, but I don’t know where they are.  There are some new buildings. The OSU campus looks great.  (I don’t know why they can’t afford a good sound system in this room!)  My old house is still there, it just looks smaller.  Like that tree in the book we read 50 years ago, A Separate Peace, which some of you may remember (and I don’t mean to denigrate . . .).  “The tree was gigantic.”  No, it wasn’t.  It was small, like your old house. The same schools are still there, except that they rebuilt CHS.  Mehlhaf’s is still there.  It’s comforting. 

We were lucky to have grown up in Corvallis and to have gone to CHS. 
When I got to college some of my classmates had gone to fancy eastern prep schools. (“I prepped at Choate.  Where did you prep?”  “I prepped at Corvallis High, and I got a better education than you did.”) 

Our class was really a watershed, the calm before the storm.  Maybe it was easier to be a teacher then.  You didn’t have to worry about psychos with assault rifles or drug addicts.   

I don’t know about you, but I feel very lucky that my own failings didn’t get me in real trouble.  I could easily be pushing a shopping cart down the sidewalk and mumbling to myself—and I don’t mean to denigrate any of you who are pushing shopping carts and mumbling to yourselves. 

So, would you still want to graduate in 1965, or today?   Surprise! ---NOBODY wants to be graduating in 2015.  Even if you get your 50 years back. 

Several reasons:  I don’t think there are as many opportunities for young people today, and the young people don’t either. You hear today’s teens say they are “dreading the future.”  In ’65, most of us saw only opportunity—that we could pursue our interests and be pretty sure there was going to be a career at the end of it. Now, not so much.  College at U of O cost me 330 dollars a year in tuition.  Not any more. 

Second, I don’t think I could DO all that striving again, or work that hard!  It’s good to do something as if your life depended on it--once. 

Finally, I think every generation is adapted to and suited to the world it grows up in, and I think our parents, grandparents, and most people who ever lived would say the same thing, no matter how dark the age they lived in. (Although It’s hard to imagine people during the Black Plague saying “It’s a great time to be alive!”)  

We look back to the last century and say “How could they live like that?!” and  future generations will probably look back at us and say the same thing: “There was no teleportation!  You actually had to carry your I-phone in your hands, and they aged, for God’s sake!”  I also hope that future generations look back at us and say that we met the challenges of our age—just like every generation of Americans has.  I hope they will not say that we shirked our duties, but were really good at entertaining ourselves—and we did a little shopping.

Young people are unreasonably optimistic, and we wanted to accomplish things, not because they were easy but because they were difficult.  (And, by the way, that was first said by St. Thomas Aquinas, not John F Kennedy.)  Human beings adapt to and learn to love the ideas, manners, and technology that we grow up with.  We can keep up for most of our lives, but then we start to fall behind.

Now I feel like I am rowing a boat as fast as I can, but the current keeps sweeping me backwards.  (That is an image in from The Great Gatsby, that book we read 50 years ago, for those of you who remember.  (And I don’t mean to denigrate those of you who don’t.)   

So, tonight, most of us should feel lucky to be here—lucky to be anywhere—and to have lived in the generation we did, and to have gone to our school.   

And we should feel especially grateful for the teachers we had, some of whom are here tonight!  We are grateful and honored to have you here.

These are the names you listed:

Chris Christianson (Biology)
Sharon Beardsley (English)
Mr. Harrison (Science)
Mrs. Gottlieb (English)
Loretta Smith (3rd grade)
Mr. Hall (5th grade Garfield)
James Martin (History)
Mr. Rasmussen and Mr. Conley  (9th grade physical science)
Mr. Rutledge (sixth grade Harding Elementary)
Miss Weir  (5th grade)
Mr. Labatto  (Choir)
John Thomas (History)
George Heath (Science at Western View Junior High)
Ms. Hawkins
Dean Bruce (Franklin)
Mr. Spitznogle (Spanish)
Bob Thetford  (English)
Mr. Ivan Bodine  (Social Studies)
Miss Patton (Eighth Grade Algebra), got several votes. 
            (And it was “Miss,” I think, Sandy, but let’s not go off on a tangent . . .)
Harvey Brooks (Music)
And of course, the inimitable and indomitable Joe Malango. 

God knows what they all had to put up with. 

SO--What’s next?   

Most of us can look back and say we made a difference, and some of us have made a big difference.  Check out the profiles of Dr. Mark Rampton, or Bill Furtick, and many others.

One day Joe Malango wrote the word “forgotten” on the chalk board, and called it, I think, “the most heartbreaking word.”  How many generations does it take to be forgotten?  Three? Four?  Do you know the names of all your great grandparents?  So now we start thinking about our ancestors and researching genealogy.  We’re all going to be ancestors ourselves soon.  We started at the cowcatcher of the train, and we’re working our way back to the caboose.  (I feel like Frank Sinatra in that movie, Von Ryan’s Express:    Wait!)

I wish we could stick around another 50 years to find out what happens!  Peace on earth and good will toward men--and women?  That would be nice, but don’t hold your breath.  I hope our journeys aren’t finished yet.  There is still so much to learn. 

Scientists tell us that the universe is actually very young, cosmologically speaking, and that we are living in the best and briefest time—the Age of Stars.   Soon, in a trillion years or so, all the stars will “wink out” and the universe will become cold and dark. 

So, before we “wink out,” let’s remember our friends who are not here, and our teachers.  And let’s remember the good times of friendship and hope.   

So, repeat after me—Live Long and Prosper!   

See you next time.