Jody Brogna had the floor, his baritone voice just as commanding as it had been nearly 50 years ago on the school yard or in the hallways and classrooms of Pittston High School.
“Remember back then how there was a little neighborhood store on just about every block?” he asked as six or seven heads nodded in agreement. “Well, my little grandmother had one of those stores right near our house.
“She was so cute,” Jody went on. “She was always putting something ‘on sale’ — you know, knocking a few pennies off this or that — so she could be like the big stores. Well, one day we’re eating lunch at school — you remember how all the seniors used to sit in the upstairs bleechers at the gym? Well, the one guy says to me, ‘Hey, Jody, will you tell your grandmother to knock off the sale on pickle loaf? My mother’s been packing me nothing but pickle loaf sandwiches for two weeks.’”
“‘Hey,’ I said back to him, ‘look at this,” Jody went on, and as he did he put his hands together as if in prayer and then turned them palms-up, as though opening an imaginary book, or in this case, sandwich. “‘Look at this. Pickle loaf. Where do you think my mom shops?’”
We all could relate. And soon we’re were discussing the last time any of us had pickle loaf. “I used to really like that stuff,” one fella chimed in.
The scene was Arcaro’s and Gennel’s Restaurant in Old Forge last Saturday night and the occasion was a get-together of some of the members of the Pittston High School graduating class of 1966, the last graduating class before the school merged with others to former the giant Pittston Area. I and my wife, a year younger than these folks, had been invited to attend as special guests of ‘66 classmate Buddy Maiorana and his wife, the former Mary Volpe, one of our classmates. Buddy and Mary began dating in junior high and are still together.
The Class of ‘66 marked not only the end of Pittston High but also the end of an era, a time when classmates knew everyone by name, knew their parents, knew their siblings, and knew enough about each other to poke fun one moment, lend support the next, and recognize when the time was appropriate for either. Jody Brogna led classmate Richie Giamusso into another story that illustrates the point. It took place in the same bleechers where the senior boys ate lunch.
Another classmate, Rick O’Haire, would walk by every day, Jody explained, reach into Richie’s lunch bag, pull out his sandwich, take a big bite out of it and put in back. “Richie was such a nice guy, he wouldn’t say a word,” Jody said.
Then, one day, along came Rick as usual but when he took his bite, he spit it out immediately, coughing and gaging as he ran off.
“Tell them what you did, Richie?” Jody said.
“I put a frog from the biology lab between two slices of bread,” Richie said sheepishly.
That was the last time Rick O’Haire reached in for a bite of Richie’s sandwich.
I suppose you could call what Rick was doing bullying, although we didn’t use such a word back then, and what Richie did as how we handled bullying in those days. Nobody needed to get a principal involved … or a lawyer.
“The thing is,” Jody Brogna said, “we really did care about each other, and seniors had no problem hanging out with juniors and juniors with sophomores. For one thing, we all walked to school together and talked the whole way.”
“Today’s high school kids don’t talk to each other and I think it’s because they don’t congregate in a school yard,” I pointed out. “They get out of a bus or a car and go right into school.”
“Yeah,” Jody said. “And we used to get to school early so we could hang out in the school yard.”
That’s where we learned how to socialize, how to converse, how to engage in the art of small talk. And we’ve been doing it ever since.
When my class graduated, a year after these guys, there were 367 students in the class. Many of us had never met, and still have not to this day. The sense of community we enjoyed at a place like Pittston High was gone forever.
Something that united all Pittston High students for decades was on display at last Saturday’s gathering. It’s a sign that was prominently displayed in the hallway of the school proclaiming the school’s motto, the famous last line of the poem Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Every student who ever entered the doors of Pittston High is familiar with that motto. And there are very few who did not take it to heart and make it their life’s motto.
Interestingly, those words are spoken in a significant scene in the latest James Bond movie Skyfall by actress Judi Dench in the role of “M,” the head of British intelligence. When I heard her say them in the movie, chills ran up and down my arms. I got those same chills again looking at the sign last Saturday night.
“Do schools’ even have mottos anymore?” I asked aloud to no one in particular.
“Probably not,” I heard Jody Brogna answer. “But they should.”