They’re in their 70s now. But the men and women of Staples’ Class of 1960 who gathered today retain the youthful spirit — and rebelliously optimistic nature — of their heady, wonderful high school days.
The setting was the Westport Library. That seems a bit incongruous, for this was a reunion of Downshifters. That’s the hot rod club that flourished here in the 1950s and ’60s.
But the Downshifters were not hoodlums. One was president of his class; another became a liberal political activist.
The Downshifters had a court system. Anyone caught peeling out of the Staples parking lot had to deal with the club’s discipline. Cops who nabbed members for speeding let the group handle it.
They offered public service safety checks at Famous Artists School — founder Albert Dorne was a big Downshifters supporter — and had a car show in the police station parking lot.
The YMCA provided meeting space. At one banquet, a clergyman gave an invocation.
Parents Magazine named the Downshifters one of the 14 outstanding youth groups in the country. (“There must have been a father in town who worked for them,” someone quipped.)
Still, they were high school kids. Which is to say: no angels.
Mike James and Charlie Taylor led today’s event. It drew 30 or so former Downshifters, girlfriends and others (including Gordon Hall, a social studies teacher at the time who still lives in town).
Mike interspersed a history of the club with some social observations. “We were way ahead in both cool and cars,” he said. “But we built our cars. They weren’t given to us, like the rich kids.”
He described the role that music — especially jazz and rock ‘n’ roll — played in his and his friends’ teenage lives.
And what lives they were. Mike Katz sold tickets to anyone who wanted to watch him drive his 1948 Chevy off a cliff. (Principal Stan Lorenzen put a quick stop to that.)
They haunted La Joie’s junkyard in Norwalk, and another in Danbury. They traveled to drag strips in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine.
One member skipped school to attend a car show in New Jersey. When he forged an excuse note, vice principal Tommy Thompson nailed him: He’d spelled his mother’s name wrong.
The Downshifters made growing up in Westport memorable — and those memories remain, 55 years later. Soon after Charlie Taylor moved to Westport from rural Kentucky, he went hunting. A state policeman saw him sauntering down the Sherwood Island with a rifle, and put a quick end to that.
Charlie’s introduction to Staples as a sophomore might have been rough. He fancied himself James Dean, in a non-James Dean town. But Lance Gurney took Charlie under his wing, and introduced him to the Downshifters. His life here was forever changed.
The Downshifters and their friends sifted through all those memories today. It was a wonderful morning.
When it was over, a former hot rodder asked if all the stories would be on “06880.” “I don’t want my grandchildren to know all this,” he half-joked.
Don’t worry. His grandkids don’t want him to know everything they’re up to as teenagers today either.
Then again, let’s hope they’re making their own adolescent, funny-then-and-funnier now, life-on-the-edge memories. Which — if they’re lucky — they’ll share with their still-good friends at their own 55th reunion, which comes up sooner than they’ll realize in 2070.