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Jewish World Review Jan. 19, 1999 /12 Shevat, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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The story behind the
men on the museum steps -- WHEN YOU MAKE AN APPOINTMENT, you're supposed to keep it.

Of course, if you're 16 or 17 years old when you make that appointment, and the appointment is for 37 years in the future. . . .

The year was 1963. There were 10 of them -- juniors at Mather High School, on the North Side of Chicago. They weren't the most popular bunch of guys, they weren't the biggest sports stars. They were. . . .

Well, they were best friends. Ten guys who, during the course of their high school years, became each others' best friends.

They even had a name for themselves. They had planned on calling themselves the Culligan Men -- they had a summer softball team, and they asked the Culligan bottled-water-and-water-softener company (whose advertising slogan was "Hey, Culligan Man!") to sponsor the team, pay for the softball jerseys. But for whatever reason, the Culligan company said no. So the 10 guys decided to name their team -- to name their group of friends -- after a chemical that one of them recalled learning about in class. Zeolite, the chemical was called. If they couldn't be the Culligan Men, they would be the Zeolites.

One day junior year -- they were eating lunch at the table they always shared in the Mather cafeteria -- one of the 10 came up with an idea. He said that the 10 friends should make plans to meet up again some day far in the future -- that no matter what they were doing or where they were living, they should agree to meet on a specific day at a specific place.

They wanted to choose a day that would be easy to remember. They came up with Jan. 1, 2000 -- the first day of a new century. They set noon for the time. And for a place, they wanted to choose somewhere that, even in 1963, they could be pretty certain would still be standing 37 years later.

They chose the Museum of Science and Industry -- specifically, the outdoor steps of the museum.

How serious were they, that day at the lunch table in '63?

"Well, we meant it," said Gerald Stein, who was one of the Zeolites at the table, and who now is a clinical psychologist in the Chicago area. "But we didn't spend a whole lot of time talking about it."

Because they thought that none of them would really show up?

"It wasn't that," he said. "It was just that we knew that, on the first day of the 21st Century, we would all be 53 years old. We could never picture ourselves being that old, so it didn't seem real to us."

They graduated from Mather in '64. They went out into the world, and did not stay in especially close touch. They moved to different parts of the U.S., took different kinds of jobs. There were marriages, children, some divorces, more children. Years would go by between the times they spoke to each other.

But they never forgot. They never forgot when they were best friends, and when they made the appointment for Jan. 1, 2000.

During the year just past, they began to make contact with each other. They were, in fact, 53 now; it no longer seemed to be such an impossible age.

And they made their plans. Vacation days were put in for; airline reservations were made.

One of the 10 had to be at work on New Year's day -- he worked in the computer industry in Texas, and was assigned to Y2K duty. Another simply chose not to come -- he was going to be on a vacation with his family.

But the other eight -- the eight would-be Culligan Men, the eight Zeolites--were there. They wouldn't have missed it for anything.

Three live in Illinois; two flew in from California, one from the state of Washington, one from Connecticut, one from Michigan.

And at noon on the first day of January -- at noon exactly -- they walked together onto the steps of the Museum of Science and Industry.

"There is nothing in the world that feels better than being with people who remember the same things you remember -- who remember the reasons that you liked each other in the first place," Gerald Stein said.

The meeting on the museum steps didn't last all that long -- they had meals and other activities planned for the weekend. But the steps were what mattered -- keeping the appointment they had made when they were 16 was what mattered.

"The people you can laugh with," Stein said. "The people with whom you don't feel the need to be guarded -- how many people do you find like that in your life?

"We said we'd be there. And we were there."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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