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If Your Friends Jumped Off a Cliff…

Terrie Ellerbee, associate editor
Terrie Ellerbee, associate editor

My husband and I just returned from an indescribably terrific trip to Salem, Mo. We were there for his 30th high school reunion.

We’d made it for the 20th, and were excited about seeing everyone again.

A half-dozen of us went “floating,” or canoeing on the Current River the Friday before the reunion. It was not only a relaxing and fun prelude to the dinner and dance that was to come on Saturday night, but it also was seemingly much more fun than people our age are supposed to have.

The night before the float trip, we’d gone out in town to pick up snacks, lunch and assorted beverages.

My husband, who has lived in four states below the Mason-Dixon line since graduating high school, was shocked to walk into a liquor store and see a wall completely covered with firearms for sale. You could get ammo there, too.

Friday morning, the gang met at Akers Ferry, paid up and waited on the old school bus that would take us to the put-in point.

The Current River is known for its cold springs, and in particular Welch Spring, where decades ago people gathered seeking relief from asthma.

The water bubbling up is so chilly that it is glacier blue.

On July 15, with the heat and its accompanying index hitting ridiculous numbers, there was no better place to be than in the Current River floating over cold water. A breeze felt like air conditioning.

The Current River, which flows through the Mark Twain National Forest, also is know for its “Flying W,” a series of limestone bluffs. The lowest of these bluffs jutted out, on this particular day, about 20 feet above the river with its inviting and quite startling cold water.

Yes, all but one of us hovering-around-50-year-olds jumped off the bluff (and yes, it was because everyone else was doing it).

We could hear the young around us. “Look at those old people.” “Get out of their way but keep an eye on them.”

Atop the bluff a queue had formed of about five youngsters. A teenager and I discussed this wonderful and stupid thing we were about to do.

“I’ve never done this before,” I said.

“Neither have I,” she said.

“I’m a little nervous,” I said.

“I am, too,” she said.

A young man jumped off the lowest bluff, performing an Olympic-style somersault before slapping down onto the water.

“Your turn,” the teenager said to me.

Some things you do without thinking. That was the approach I chose. Five steps and a flying leap.

My husband, who was in line behind me, told me later that he couldn’t believe what he saw. Since I had done it, there was no ­backing out for him. So, he also took the plunge.

I’m not from Salem, or Missouri, for that matter, so it is a familiar yet foreign landscape. Its rolling hills lack the ubiquitous pines found in Georgia.

The attitude and people are different, too.

In the Midwest, ignorance isn’t actually on display.

Not one whit of bigotry or misogyny was uttered. By anyone. Didn’t matter if you were male or female, local or spouse, you were getting picked on, dared and roughhoused —and included in every conversation and joke. (The guy who didn’t jump off the bluff was given a hard time for the rest of the float trip and at the reunion.)

There wasn’t much drama, either. It was more situational comedy.

Missouri was a welcome respite.

Missouri’s people are very much down-to-earth, middle-of-the-road, common sense good folk. (Clichés are clichés because they are true, after all.)

The next night, as the evening began, classmates leaned in to peer at nametags and rediscover their classmates. Somewhat awkward conversations consisted of answering questions like, “What are you doing now?” and declaring such profundities as “My customers ­depend on me and I care about them” (certainly noteworthy, but not reminiscent of high school).

After dinner and a few more adult beverages of choice

(BYOA), the room grew much louder, and the “cool kids” began gathering outside.

Those who remembered recounted teenage tales to those who had forgotten. Three different people told some of the same stories—proof enough in the Show Me State that the events occurred as reported.

Conversations began to turn to specific classmates—mostly, but not always of the opposite sex.

One alumni’s popular sister was often asked about.

She now has five grandkids.

The hot high school art teacher?

She’s at oh, 300, 350 pounds.

The later the hour and the more lubricated the memories, the more the years fell away.

The people who had arrived earlier that evening soon will get their initial invitations to join AARP. (Happy 50th birthday.)

But as they pulled away from long, warm hugs at the night’s end they were again the Class of 1981, the kids who wore letter jackets and stacked pyramids of Busch cans by the river.

Later one classmate would post on Facebook that the 30th reunion was special because at this point in life, people realize that ­possessions have nothing to do with real happiness.

These classmates, and surely those belonging to classes that this summer celebrated 40, 45, 50, 60 or more years since high school, don’t “feel” old. They confront the physical ailments and challenges that come with time, but in their minds, they are the same. Their souls are young.

Doesn’t matter how old you are, no one wants to be treated as feeble or incapable just because time has passed.

For them, it was just yesterday that they leapt off the Flying W for the first time.

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