They often yield surprises we don’t expect.
A few years ago (aw heck, we’ll come clean—it was 1997), we were wandering through a tiny flea market in our Manhattan neighborhood, just a few blocks from where we reside.
We were taken by a 1965 yearbook from Midland Park Junior/Senior High School in Midland Park, New Jersey. We kind of liked the design of the book, and we enjoyed, as we always do when browsing old yearbooks, taking in the faces and fashions of the students and faculty. The year 1965 was on that cusp between the bouffants and crew cuts of the Fifties and early Sixties and the coming Mod look of the late Sixties. Most of the pictures could just as easily have come from a 1959 yearbook, frankly, but there were a few signs of what was to come: In one candid shot, for example, a boy was dressed in rather psychedelic-era duds, with longish hair and a beret (though it seemed to have been a costume).
But mostly, we were intrigued by the mystery of whose yearbook it was. There were, throughout, inscriptions to someone named “Jack” [We’ve changed all the names in this account to preserve anonymity]. One full page one was filled with the sentiments of a young man bemoaning the fact that he and Jack had never gotten closer, though he expressed agreement with the way Jack had once assessed their relationship: They were too much alike, Jack felt, to ever be very close.
Despite that, Bob, the inscriber, praised Jack. “You, as the ‘Banger,’ really know how to make the wild scene, but always keep your sense of values within firm grasp.” Bob goes on to urge Jack to remember that, “[H]aving a good time means many things to many different people—never ridicule anyone who would rather sit home and read rather than go ‘upstate.'” Bob quickly dropped that stance, however, admitting that he had no place to lecture Jack.
Jack’s English teacher, Cathy Cartwright, an attractive young brunette in a black turtleneck sweater and with a B.A. from Paterson State College in Paterson, N.J., writes, “Jack—One of the few we shall never forget. It was quite an experience having you in class these two years. You made it worth it [emphasis Miss Cartwright’s]. Keep in touch tomorrows.”
As we’ve no doubt that virtually every one of her straight male students had a thing for Ms. Cartwright, this inscription in Jack’s yearbook must’ve been a prized one, indeed.
Each of the students’ portraits have wry little mottos printed beside them; we don’t know if they were of the students’ own choosing or not. But one Bette Sue Riverdale, whose “motto” reads, “Friendly, gentle, full of fun—she has a smile for every one” writes to Jack, “Too bad Goldwater lost—at least you put up a good fight. Best always…” So it would seem our man Jack was a Republican. We wondered if he was still.
Jack’s male friends seem to be mostly hard-partying men’s men—future frat boys, no doubt. One salutes Jack as “a good man and a great drinker,” while another wishes for Jack that he “‘makes out’ in college—in both senses of the word.”
We were intrigued by the notion of solving the mystery the yearbook presented, of figuring out who this Jack was. We wondered what he was doing now. Was he still alive? Why did he let his yearbook go? Or did he lose it? And mightn’t he be thrilled to get it back? Did Miss Cartwright still remember Jack, as she promised she would? What made him so memorable in her English class?
We found ourselves mulling over whether to buy the yearbook. The vendor wanted ten bucks for it. We offered five, he told us how valuable the yearbook is, how much demand there was for such volumes and offered to let it go for seven. We took it.
As soon as we got it home, we looked again at the front cover, and realized with some surprise that it was engraved with Jack’s full name: Jack Gibson. He was listed in the yearbook in the Senior Directory:
“S.G.O., Vice President 11, Rep. 12; Football 9,10,11; Baseball 9; Class Vice President 10; Newspaper 12”
So we looked up his picture. His was a thin, blond face, combining the sensitivity of John Boy Walton with the manly confidence of Wally Cleaver. He was wearing a herringbone tweed jacket, a light-colored (perhaps a pale yellow but probably not white) shirt with a narrow dark tie. His rather full, somewhat sensuous mouth does not smile, but then most of the other men pictured in the annual also opted for a serious expression. Jack’s expression had a certain haughty quality about it, but a hint of sadness, too.
His motto? “We do what we please, and we do it with ease.”
As we continued to browse the yearbook, we come across another inscription from a classmate, one Michael Louis Antonini, who wrote, “Jack, Good luck with Miss Cartwright! What else can we say? Mike.”
Continued perusal found two more mentions of Ms. Cartwright. Two other guys referred to her in their inscriptions to Jack. One mentioned “Body by Cartwright.”
We suspected that Jack probably just had a thing for Ms. Cartwright—he and most of the other guys—and made no secret about it. And who knows? She may have been a bit flirty in return, which would have set those high school minds abuzz.
Ms. Cartwright graduated from Paterson State in 1963, so she was just out of college when she taught Jack, no more than 23 or 24—not all that much older than Jack, who would have been 17 or so when they first encountered each other (she said she had taught him for two years).
Though we were loath to leap to salacious assumptions, it did cross our mind, based on the tone and content of her inscription in Jack’s yearbook, that there could possibly have been something between them. We felt the cad to even consider the possibility, but we couldn’t help it.
On the other hand, though there was not such a big age difference between them, at those ages, those five or six years would loom rather large. Jack “The Banger” Gibson would’ve had to have been awfully charming to win over a woman of 23. We felt reasonably certain it was a one-way thing.
But we wanted to know more.
We figured that Ms. Cartwright was our best bet to find out something about Jack Gibson. On his classmates, we had no leads, but we knew from her info in the yearbook where she’d gone to college, so we figured the alumni association there might be willing and able to, at least, contact her on our behalf.
We called, and the alumni association did indeed have a record on Ms. Cartwright. As we suspected would be the case, school policies didn’t allow them to give us any info on her (the woman did let slip that she was a writer). She offered to contact Ms. Cartwright on our behalf and let her know how she could contact us, if she was willing. We took up on that offer.
Weeks went by with no response from Ms. Cartwright. The woman at the Paterson State alumni office assured us she’d left her a voicemail, so all we could do was wait.
Or, perhaps, we could write her a letter and have the alumni office forward it for us. Our gal at Paterson State agreed to do just that.
Here’s what we wrote:
Dear Ms. Cartwright,
I am the person who recently made a couple of attempts to contact you via the alumni office of William Paterson University (I believe you’ve heard from a Ms. Sally Seawright on our behalf). I didn’t want to burden Ms. Seawright with too many details, but in providing her with limited information, I fear I may have left you wondering why this stranger was trying to contact you. So I thought I’d drop a line of explanation.
Here’s a little background on me: I’m Oklahoma born and bred, but have lived for fifteen years in New York City, in Manhattan, where I make my living as an editor and freelance writer. In addition to my work for various print publications, I also have found a home for my writing on the Internet. I’m a Features Editor for BarnesandNoble.com, writing and working with freelancers on feature content for the Travel, Pop Culture, and Biography sections of our site. I’m also considering the launch of my own website, one devoted to pop culture of the 20th century, and that, believe it or not, is why I contacted you.
Last summer, I was strolling a flea market in the Chelsea section of Manhattan when I came across a 1965 yearbook from Midland Park Junior-Senior High school in Midland Park, New Jersey. I have a soft spot for old yearbooks; I enjoy the glimpses into the past that they allow us. And I found myself wondering why the owner of this particular one had given up his yearbook, why he’d turned his back on the memories contained there. I wondered if, in fact, the owner of the yearbook hadn’t meant to give it up, if maybe he hadn’t misplaced it somewhere along the way. Or if the yearbook had been cut loose because—and I hated to think this — the book’s owner had passed on.
I decided to purchase the yearbook, thinking it would be interesting to read the inscriptions from classmates and faculty, to learn from them just what kind of person the owner of the yearbook had been, to see if I could figure out which of those hopeful, youthful faces was his (I knew it was a young man because the inscriptions read, “To Jack”).
It was only after I arrived home with the yearbook that I noticed (I visited the flea market on a sleepy Sunday morning and hadn’t yet been fully alert) that the owner’s full name was inscribed on the yearbook’s cover: Jack Gibson. A cursory scanning of the salutations from classmates and teachers informed us that in the spring of 1965 young Mr. Gibson had plans for attending Providence College, that he was an avid Goldwater supporter, that he was interested in history. I considered calling the alumni association at Providence, but somehow that seemed too easy. After all, they might inform me that Mr. Gibson was indeed alive and well, which would be great news, but I knew that, in that case, I would feel too guilty to do anything but immediately contact Mr. Gibson with an offer to return his yearbook (something I intend to do eventually, in any case).
And by now I am wondering if there might not be an interesting magazine feature in my discovery of this yearbook and my search for its onetime owner. Or perhaps such a story would interest the producers of This American Life, a National Public Radio program on which I have appeared on two occasions in recent months. Finally, if nothing else, I thought that a feature on the history of this yearbook—and my search for its owner—would make a fine inaugural feature for the launch of the new website I mentioned above.
So instead of calling the Providence alumni office, I thought I might attempt to slowly discover the real Jack Gibson by talking or corresponding with those who knew him in his senior year. The most easily traced of those who seemed to know him was you, Ms. Cartwright. You two seemed to have a rewarding relationship (you wrote of him: “One of the few I shall never forget”), and since the yearbook listed you as a graduate of Paterson State College, I contacted the alumni office there. After confirming that, yes, you’d graduated from there, Ms Seawright agreed to contact you on my behalf.
Please rest assured that I have no desire to intrude on your life or on Mr. Gibson’s. I would certainly keep to a minimum the coverage of the details of your private lives and the lives of anyone else I might contact in pursuit of this story. It’s only the slow acquainting of myself with this man I don’t know, via his yearbook, the good wishes inscribed there, and the memories of those who knew/know him that interests me. I don’t know whether you’ve stayed in touch with Mr. Gibson over the years, as I have with some of my high school teachers, but surely, as a writer (Ms. Seawright hinted that you were a writer), you can understand how the opportunity to piece together these scattered clues of a life previously unknown to me was an enticing one.
If you would agree to speak to me, or to correspond via regular mail or e-mail, I could then go about pitching this idea to an editor or two, or to my contacts at This American Life. Your assent would give me the opening I’d need to begin to crack this “mystery.” I’m not pursuing this for any financial gain; appearances on This American Life are not at all lucrative and I think that was the most likely outlet for this story—that or my new website, which would not bring any recompense at all. My web endeavors are labors of love, alas, not money-makers. I find I do best when I follow a story simply because it interests me; the money seems to take care of itself.
If I can answer any concerns you might have regarding this project, or if you require any additional information, please feel free to contact me. Even if you can’t see your way clear to speaking with me, I’d appreciate hearing from you just so that I’m made aware of your decision. I certainly don’t mean to make a pest of myself, but it’s been a bit frustrating communicating with you through the Paterson U. alumni association; I’ve had no way of knowing for certain that Ms. Seawright was in touch with you or what she might be telling you about me and my reasons for contacting you. So even a definite “Thanks, but no thanks” would be preferable to not hearing from you at all.
I look forward to your response.
Well, gentle reader, we can tell you that Ms. Cartwright did get back to us, and she was perfectly willing to talk on the phone with us. It turned out she was living in New Jersey again (after some years in New York City). She had been a writer and an editor, though was now retired (if we recall correctly—that’s one detail of which we’re not certain).
But the conversation proved to be a complete and utter bust.
The fault was entirely ours, mind you. Ms. Cartwright was engaging and talkative, but in the end, we chickened out entirely on asking her the “hard” questions about the nature of her relationship with Jack Gibson. She said she did remember him, but she didn’t offer any hint as to whether there was something, well, special between them.
And we just couldn’t bring myself to ask her. After all, it’s possible the two of them had a special connection, but never acted on it in any way that might be viewed as inappropriate.
Or perhaps, who knows, they did act on these hypothetical feelings. If so, that’s their private business, particularly after all these years.
Or perhaps there was nothing there at all. She may never have even known that “The Banger” had a little thing for her.
In any case, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to broach that sensitive topic. So our talk was very brief, and she must have wondered why we’d gone to so much trouble to track her down. It’s not hard to understand, upon reading this tale, why, though we’ve had our successes as a writer, we could never have been a hard-nosed, investigative journalist. Too wimpy.
But the weeks-long adventure of sorting through the clues found in the yearbook and tracking down Ms. Cartwright was well worth the effort we put into it, even if we came up short of the finish line.