I was at my high school reunion last weekend.
I had an absolute blast. It was an utterly wonderful time, in just about every possible way.
Of course, any gathering of mid-fortysomethings is going to have its share of bad news. Up until last year, we’d lost a total of six classmates out of 251; the usual stuff, really – a suicide, an Air Force crew chief who died when his C5 crashed in the run-up to Desert Storm in 1990, a couple of freak illnesses, an accident or two.
Then, we lost five classmates in one year; a fall, a couple of unspecified illnesses, and one who died of cancer. The streak concluded with two deaths in one day, last May 17th.
One of the classmates who died that day was a guy named Dwight Rexin.
I met Dwight in tenth grade. He’d been in my hometown’s Seventh Day Adventist school up ’til then. Like a lot of parochial-school kids who come to the public schools, even in those simpler days, Dwight seemed like a bit of a fish out of water. He was extremely smart – indeed, he was one of very few high school kids I’ve met, then or since, who could have made a serious claim to being an intellectual. Blazingly well-read in history, sci-fi, political science and a slew of other areas, trying to keep up with Dwight in an intellectual conversation was like trying to waterski behind a cigarette racer; at the beginning, you just held on and tried not to get too embarassed.
Or at least I did. And as it happened, Dwight was embarking on a bit of a quest himself. Seventh Day Adventist school could be fairly called “sheltered”; he knew little of pop culture, the music of the day, and the stuff teenagers did just because they were teenagers, even in that simpler and less frantic time. Not that I was any kind of party vegetable – indeed, I had exactly one beer in high school, which may have been one more than Dwight had. But I knew music backwards and forwards; I was working at the radio station, I was a pop-culture vacuum cleaner, and I, like Dwight, enjoyed tying little pictures into bigger pictures. Seventh Day Adventist kids weren’t supposed to go to movies, or dance, or do any secular music. But he was relaxing some of the rules; I introduced him to Tom Petty (he liked), Bruce Springsteen and the Clash (not as much) ; I cast him as the evil magnate in a one-act melodrama I directed my senior year, which I always thought was ironic, starring in a play before, I think, he’d ever attended one.
Back then, there were two crowds in summer school at Jamestown High School; the ones that had to be there, since they’d flunked a required class, like English or Biology or Government, and the ones that wanted to be there, either to get ahead on required classes or to escape taking the Government class from one particularly boring and disdained teacher (who will remain unnamed, although any Jamestown High School grads from the era on this thread will know who I mean). A small crew us us – Bob Martin, Dove Boe, Dwight and I – were in the latter crowd. So in the summer of 1980 – 31 years ago this week, as luck’d have it – we spent six weeks in a sweltering classroom taking our Government class.
It was a fun time for the subject. The 1980 election was shaping up, and at this point was still a close race. I was, by the way, a liberal. Not an especially articulate or well-informed one, but still outspoken and not a little arrogant. I would have probably been a famous leftyblogger had I been born twenty years later.
But I digress. All of my assumptions redounded with lefty “conventional wisdom”. In early June, I’d gone to North Dakota Boys State, a mock government put on by the American Legion, and wandered my way into being a state party chairman. I wrote a platform that might have made Paul Wellstone walk into Jesse Helms’ office to admit maybe the left had gone too far and totally ruined the younger generation.
So when we had to give our final presentations, I did some sort of giggly treacle on foreign aid. Passable work – I got an A, but then I always did with social studies like history, geography and government.
And Dwight cut loose with an hour-long, Buckleyesque jeremiad on the entitlement pyramid, on the need to get government out of peoples’ private lives, on what the Tenth Amendment really meant, on the links between cartel capitalism and big “progressive” governments like Carter’s…
…that, frankly, I found offensive. I questioned him sharply; he responded even moreso. Shot down all my objections without breaking a sweat. Left me angry (in a civil, intellectual sort of way) and frustrated…
…largely because, although it’d be years before I admitted it, he was right. At that time of my life, I wasn’t one to casually admit even a badly-thought-out premise of mine was wrong. I was a teenager, hey? I had always associated conservatives with icky things – just like the media raises young “progressives” to do to this day.
Dwight and I were also college classmates; we worked on our college newspaper together. And as my journey from right to left started, and then accelerated, it was Dwight who was my sounding board, my mental test lab for all these new ideas.
I’ve credited a number of people with helping push me down the road as I wandered away from liberalism and, gradually, became a conservative; my first radio boss, Bob Richardson; my college English prof, Dr. Blake, who acquainted me with Solzhenitzyn and Dostoevskii and O’Rourke and Paul Johnson and the other great minds that led me to where I am.
But Dwight? He was the first peer of mine, the first guy in my age group, who ever seriously challenged me.
I last saw Dwight in 1993. We met for a couple of beers when I was in Portland, Oregon on business. I was recently married, with two brand-new kids; he was a systems analyst at Nike. We talked techology, and family, and caught up on classmates since the 10 year reunion. He never came to the 20 or 25 year reunions, for whatever reason. I’d hoped he’d make this last one; I’d hoped to let him know some of the stuff I’m writing in this post.
Anyway – rest in peace, Dwight Rexin.