30th High School Reunion

Tightwad. Bolch. Red Meat. Vickers. Witness. One Punch. And then there’s Guinea Pig.

“Don’t call me that,” Liz Fountain Swett says, punching Barry Leslie in the arm, and right away you can see the third grader she used to be, still humiliated by a nickname she never wanted. The way she remembers it, it was because she brought a guinea pig to show-and-tell. But Barry remembers their third grade teacher asking for volunteers, and only one hand going up — Liz’s. Then the class cutup called out, “Oh, a guinea pig!” And 39 years later, that’s how she’s remembered.

They’ve known each other a long time, this group. Many of them were together back in elementary school, and last August about 70 of the 300 in Novato’s San Marin High School graduating class of 1976 gathered at the Doubletree Hotel in Rohnert Park to reminisce, have a few laughs, and size each other up. To attend this 30th reunion, they’ve come from Seattle, Atlanta, even  Australia.

“Amazing you could find 70 people who cared enough,” Barry says.   “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything,” Liz replies.

To some extent high school in Marin in the 1970s matched the clichés. “It was sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” says Mercedes Shinohara (she was Mary in high school, but renamed herself at 21). Nixon was out of office, the Vietnam War was over, and the first Earth Day had been celebrated. As Richard Delamater says, “Hippie power seemed to be changing the world.” Mickey Hart owned a barn across from school where the Grateful Dead rehearsed. “During school you’d hear this magical music,” Richard recalls. “So we’d cut class to hide in the woods, smoke a doobie, and just listen.”

In the mid-’70s, Novato was a small town. “There wasn’t a lot to do,” Doreen Drake says. “We spent time just driving around.” There were only two gas stations, so during the gas crisis they’d wait in line for an hour to fill up at 35 cents a gallon. They raced their cars up Novato Boulevard or at the quarter mile out by Stafford Lake. They drove dune buggies. Hung out at the drive-in. Fixed up their cars.

“One of our friends had a key that fit another guy’s Chevrolet,” Mike Nash, who flew in from Minneapolis, remembers. “We’d leave right before lunch, drive his car down to Taco Bell, and return it before he got out of class. The poor guy tore the gas tank apart, replaced all the filters—he just about went crazy trying to figure out why he was getting such bad gas mileage.” It was four months before the Chevrolet’s owner came out of class one day to see his own car cruising up the school driveway.

The group swaps other memories. The Kentucky Fried Chicken incident: a bunch of the guys stole a statue of Colonel Sanders, put a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and a bucket on his head, and left it on the roof of the school.

Then there were the Chiclets that turned out to be Ex-Lax. Or the ninth grader who went up to the most developed girl in the class and begged, “Can I touch them?” What was the most embarrassing thing about high school? “Every single moment,” says Valerie May. Doreen adds, “I was a cheerleader, and when I look at pictures of how short my skirt was I want to die.”

The radio back then was playing Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” and Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing.” Plus another song that seems particularly relevant when the disc jockey spins it on reunion night: David Bowie’s “Golden Years.”



“It’s like being in high school all over again,” Barry says. Mercedes agrees: “We’re picking up where we left off like it was only a year ago, not 30.” Yet there is a difference: at the ten-year reunion people hung out in the same old cliques—the stoners, the jocks and cheerleaders, the drama kids, the band. Tonight, at the 30th, everybody mixes. There’s less posturing about who has accumulated the most or who has had the shiniest career. Instead, they’re here to have a good time and to share life stories —although Jill McGillis, unsure what to wear, did pack four outfits and five purses.

In a short speech, Janis Thompson Holm notes that the class is the same age their parents were when they graduated. Many have their own kids at San Marin High and they notice the differences. The school is a lot stricter than in their day.

“When boys would get in fights at lunch, the teachers would just pull them apart,” Monique Couacaud recalls. “Now they get suspended immediately.” The girls no longer smoke in the bathroom. Kids don’t worry about dates for the prom; they go in groups. The girls play sports instead of just watching from the sidelines. Many more of the kids go on to college.

And there’s one other difference. “We got lucky—Vietnam ended before our guys would have gone,” Doreen says. “Now, my daughter’s friends are in Iraq.”

There are other shadows. Not everyone’s life has gone according to plan. For some, it wasn’t easy to come up with the $75 price of the reunion dinner dance. “I was surprised how many divorces, multiple spouses, broken homes I saw among my classmates,” Mike says. There are mentions of AA meetings, and one woman notes, “I’m thankful for my daughter’s sobriety.” The class observes a moment of silence for 11 classmates who have died.

They talk of career disappointments. Mercedes got a degree in homeopathy but now works in a cubicle, something she swore she’d never do. Richard is still working at the job he got as a junior in high school, bagging groceries at the Strawberry Safeway.

His band, These Four Walls, got some radio play in the ’80s, but dreams of rock stardom never panned out. Still, he can retire in two years, at 50, and having watched friends go through the dot-com crash, he says, “I thank God for a stable job.”

There are the usual signs of aging. “All the guys wish they had more hair; the women all wish they weighed less,” Monique says. So do the men: Aaron Kondrasky says he’s put on ten pounds every ten years. A lot of his classmates need reading glasses.

Marin has changed too, they agree. It’s bigger; there’s more traffic. “I don’t venture down to San Rafael in the afternoon because I’ll never get home,” Monique says. And it used to feel safer. “I’m filling out school forms for my kid and they ask for five names of emergency contacts,” Mercedes says.

“In my old neighborhood, the houses seem worn down; there are weeds in the sidewalk,” Mike says. And Valerie notes, “Even the climate has changed. Novato used to get a lot of tule fog, frost, ice over the puddles.”

But the biggest change is what they call the snootiness factor. “There was a time when it seemed Marin was very avant-garde,” Mercedes says. “Hot tubs, peacock feathers, everybody doing their own thing. Now it seems a lot more conservative.” Richard concurs: “There’s been an awful influx of snobbery.” Mark Bryant now lives in Rohnert Park and works as a service adviser at an auto dealership up in Healdsburg. “I wanted to get out of Marin because of the fast pace,” he says. “People in Healdsburg are so much more relaxed and outgoing. They treat each other better; it’s not all push-push-push to get ahead.”

But Mercedes, who spent 14 years in London, eventually came back. “Marin is a lot like the nicer places in Europe—Spain, Italy. And the Bay Area is such an island of sanity compared to the rest of the country.”

The morning after the reunion, Richard Delamater returned to the hotel to see if he could reconnect with any classmates who’d been staying there. But they were all gone. “In the ballroom, the floor was covered with name badges and glitter. I replayed the event in my mind. It was so melancholy—like Brigadoon, the town had vanished. I walked around looking at the ghosts. Hell, I was thinking, I’ve been smoking for 30 years. This might be the last time I see these people.”

At least, until the 40th reunion. Tightwad, Red Meat, and Guinea Pig will be waiting.

Image 2:  Mark Bryant and Laurie Rafferty Loeffler dated for a year and a half in high school – but don't tell his wife.  He's never mentioned it.