My Long-Lost Tribe, by Geoff Gehman

Two months ago my life changed from black-and-white photograph to color movie for four hours. The special screening took place during the 40th reunion of the East Hampton High School class of 1976, a gang I would have graduated with had my desperate dad not yanked my family off the South Fork after secretly selling our Wainscott house without my mom’s permission. I was invited to the celebration by fellow graduates of the East Hampton Middle School class of 1972, the same good people who in my one year of East End education helped elevate my life from documentary to 3-D feature.

The road to reunion began with the 2013 publication of my memoir, “The Kingdom of the Kid,” a bittersweet portrait of South Fork kid-dom in 1967-72, when the Gehmans lived in Wainscott’s Westwoods. That summer I promoted “Kingdom” during six events on the East End. At the East Hampton Library I met Merrie Bennett Gay, my middle-school classmate, for the first time since 1972, when we shared post-movie slices at the old Brothers Four pizzeria on Newtown Lane. 

Last summer Merrie remembered me well enough to invite me to join the high school’s ’76 reunion Facebook group. Tickled and touched, I signed on in a minute. I couldn’t wait to swap confessions and revelations with the kind folks who made 1971-72 a year of pivotal firsts: first football heroics. First time on the honor roll. First romantic kisses. First membership in a school tribe.

The first person I told about the reunion invitation was my Wainscott wingmate. Mike Raffel, class of ’76 — baseball buddy, rock ’n’ roll guru, Huck Finn to my Tom Sawyer — was not only my first best friend, he was the first one to make me feel at home in my new home. The second person I told was Mike’s sister, Karen Raffel DeFronzo, class of ’77, whose passion for our Wainscott childhood is second to none. My East Hampton host immediately volunteered to be my reunion date. She even got permission from her husband, Dick, who likes to praise my memoir to passengers in his cab.

On Oct. 15, the day of the reunion, Karen, Mike, and I crowned ourselves the Three Wainscotteers. That night we parked by the South Fork Country Club in Amagansett, a popular spot for East Hampton High reunions. Pulling in behind us was Russell DiGate, my middle-school basketball teammate. A good omen became better as I was greeted inside the club by three favorite eighth-grade grads: Betty Rice, the reunion’s leader; her good friend Judith Markowitz, and their good friend Tracy Freidah Kohnken, my first South Fork squeeze. I couldn’t resist reminding Tracy that we held hands during a class field trip to see “Gone With the Wind.” 

My lucky streak continued at the bar, where I was saluted with “Geoff Gehman, get right over here!” The shout came from another eighth-grade mate, Susan Helier, whose bright voice matched her silver jewelry and boldly patterned black-and-white wrap. We have an unusual history together, Susan and I. I can’t remember a single conversation we had in or out of Mr. Kib­ler’s homeroom. Yet I remember her vividly: the pretty face, the magnetic smile, the lovely poise. Susan made such an impression on me, I made her the only middle-school interviewee for my memoir. During our phone chat we discovered another bond: Edith Mansir, her late grandmother, taught my sister, Meg, in fourth grade at Wainscott’s old one-room schoolhouse. 

Susan and I are reformed nerds who shed our shy shells long ago. In a snap we were rapping about romantic entanglements, agreeing that after three marriages we’re just not the marrying kind. We sealed our kinship when I signed her copy of my memoir, which she bought at a Sag Harbor bookstore, bless her heart. Her reading glasses were in the car, so I read her my thank-you for making the book, and eighth grade, better. And then we hugged for the second time ever.

After dinner I turned the tables, asking Susan and her friends to sign our middle-school yearbook. Nancy Porter Olsen, another Wainscotteer, and I exchanged memories of dead pals, five of whom were in Mr. Kibler’s homeroom. Betty Rice confessed that she was part of a pack of girls who thought I was “cute.” A few minutes later I told Susan that she was my eighth-grade crush. I was pleased that she wasn’t displeased, or surprised. Nancy then took our picture, side by side for the first time since our middle-school yearbook.

I did some serious time-traveling at a table with photos of 15 1976 graduates no longer with us. I spent most of the time remembering how Gregg de Waal and I spent endless hours decoding the lyrics to “American Pie.” I was staring at Gregg’s 17-year-old self when the D.J. played the song. The cosmic coincidence left me feeling sad and glad, spooked and privileged. 

From that point on I shifted between insider and outsider. I told Tracy Freidah Kohnken that I’ve never spent three hours on the phone with anyone else. I reminded John Gale, my middle-school quarterback, that I scored a long touchdown on his pass in our loss to Riverhead, whose players were as big as Paul Bunyan. Russ DiGate called me “Jethro,” my eighth-grade nickname. Michael Stella, another middle-school alum, revealed that I was the reunion’s “honorary” guest. 

“I hope you don’t mind a left-handed compliment,” he said. 

“Hey,” I replied, “I wouldn’t mind a right-handed compliment.”

Sitting alone at the yearbook-signing table, I began eavesdropping, the habit of a journalist, a professional insider-outsider. I especially enjoyed watching Mike Raffel talk up a storm with old football friends and old flames. “Mr. Wicked” still has some major-league mojo nearly 50 years after we met on Wainscott’s old rectangular baseball diamond.

After saying good night to Mike, I drove to our favorite beach in Wainscott, where I buried my heart many moons ago. Under a King Harvest moon I thought about the roots I had just grown on the South Fork, where I grew passions for everything from drive-in movies to antique cars, sex to writing. And that’s when I realized that my reunion was really a union.


Geoff Gehman is the author of “The Kingdom of the Kid: Growing Up in the Long-Lost Hamptons,” from SUNY Press. He lives in Bethlehem, Pa., and can be reached at geoffgehman@verizon.net.