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[Essay]

‘This place hasn’t changed’: John Katsilometes on his 30th high school reunion

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Photo: Danny Hellman

On the day before the 30th reunion of Pleasant Valley High School’s class of 1984, Doug and I are motoring comfortably along a winding two-lane road to Scotty’s Landing.

Scotty’s sits on the edge of the Sacramento River as it runs near my hometown of Chico, California. As you drive to the remote river haunt, you pass acres and acres of almond and walnut trees. You feel totally enveloped by all that green.

This is how I remember growing up with my best friend in Chico: surrounded by trees, cruising from spot to spot, on our way to play basketball or Wiffle ball or meet up with our friends. Doug and I were practically inseparable as teenagers, always side by side; the first time either of us heard the term “social butterfly,” it was applied to us.

“Man, I’d forgotten how green it is here,” I say, looking sideways out the window. “We do not have this sort of scenery in Las Vegas, that’s for sure.”

“Ha! Welcome home, buddy,” Doug says, looking at the road ahead. “You’ll want to make a right up here.”

It’s been so long, I can’t even remember how to find our favorite bar. “It’s like I’m returning here from another planet,” I say.

Scotty’s is a landmark from a long time ago and a far different lifetime. Along with a dock for boats, it features a cramped indoor bar, a wooden patio and an adjoining room filled with old TVs to watch multiple sporting events simultaneously. We’re talking Zeniths and Magnavoxes from 25 years ago, big picture tubes and metal knobs intact, all stacked up and plugged in. Long ago, in the days before sports bars aired multiple games on different screens, Scotty’s was the Northern California Sunday NFL headquarters.

“This place hasn’t changed,” I tell Doug as we walk along a wooden plank leading to the main bar. “I mean, we are in a time machine here.”

“I hope Scotty is here,” Doug says, pulling the door open to a gust of cool air. “He’d love to see you.”

Scotty is John Scott, the bar’s owner and son of the late founder, Walter Scott, for whom the business is named. Scotty’s has been on the banks of the Sacramento since 1955, passed down from father to son and expanded to serve those tubing down the river, young revelers toting ice chests brimming with beer bottles and other party necessities.

Happily, John Scott himself is here today. He has one of the newer TVs on its side, and he’s working the plastic stand with a Phillips screwdriver. We laugh; back in the day, John was forever wrenching and hammering around the bar. The joke was, “I’ll have a pitcher of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, some chicken fingers and a roll of duct tape for my friend here!”

I pat the bar owner on the back and say, “John, the last time I was here was about 20 years ago, and you were doing the exact same thing.”

“Oh my God,” Doug says, laughing. “That is totally true.”

It’s easier to dress for a night in Vegas than it is for your 30th high school reunion at the Elks Club in Chico. This has been a matter of discussion among some of the classmates in the days leading up to the party and dinner, and the answer from the reunion committee has been, “Whatever works.” I pick a brown suit and one of my favorite shirts—a white button-down splashed with black cats. It’s a “Kats” shirt. Get it?

I’m wearing the shirt at the dinner when I’m reunited with a woman who was more important to me growing up than anyone outside of my immediate family, the guidance counselor Mrs. Theile.

She has a first name, of course, but to all of us in the P.V. class of ’84 she’ll forever be Mrs. Theile—our emotional rudder, our Yoda. In a time when “icon” is overused, Mrs. Theile is that to our class. I joke during the party that our class needed so much counseling she actually followed us through our teenage years and led us into the real world.

Mrs. Theile spent 40 years in the Chico Unified School District, and she is the guest of honor for our 30-year reunion.

I finally wade over to her, eyes welling and heart thumping, and she hugs me. Then she grabs my arms and pushes me back.

“That shirt,” she says, smiling. “I like that shirt! That is a very Vegas shirt you are wearing, John.”

And I am 16 again.

“You know, cats, Kats,” I say, an unnecessary explanation.

“Oh, I get it. I just like the pattern and how it’s cut,” she continues, grinning at me. “Very Vegas-y. You bought that in Vegas?”

“I actually bought it in Paris during my travels.”

Soon I’m elaborating for Mrs. Theile. “I was with a friend of mine who is a headliner at the Stratosphere, named Frankie Moreno, and we were in Paris together, and Italy, Vienna, even Kenya … He and his brothers were writing songs, and I was writing all about these trips,” I say, my voice trailing off. “It’s like, I am friends with people like Wayne Newton and Carrot Top and Marie Osmond. These are my friends now. I live in a surreal place, I guess.”

“I am not surprised you ended up there,” she says, and I know she’s not kidding. “You always were kind of a Vegas guy.”

“I’ll take it as a compliment,” I say, and we’re laughing as gift baskets are raffled off to raise money for scholarships. One of the baskets is titled, “Lifestyles of the Not-So-Rich-And-Famous,” and I’m tempted to tell Mrs. Theile that Robin Leach is a good friend and colleague of mine in Las Vegas. But we’ve dropped enough names for one night.

Instead, I say, “My mother wanted to make sure I sent you her love.”

Doug and I are sitting together for the first time, at Scotty’s or anywhere, in about two decades. We haven’t even talked much over that span of time, as the tide has pulled us apart. I order the famed River Burger Basket, which is a cheeseburger and fries, and Doug orders a mammoth hot dog. It’s iced tea for the boys these days, as the guys who once ran the party are now teetotalers.

The beauty of a friendship with roots so deep is there’s no need to warm up the conversation.

“You really like living in Las Vegas?” Doug asks. “Is it hard not to drink there when you’re around it all the time?”

“I think Las Vegas is the greatest city in the world,” I say, “but I haven’t been to every city in the world. And as far as drinking or not, all of my memories of drinking in Vegas are negative. Around here, at this place, it was not always negative. We had fun.”

“Oh, yeah,” he says. “It was fun.”

We talk of firing up our parents’ car stereos—mine a Ford Tempo with a particularly robust sound system—and playing all the music of our youth. We loved Rush and Led Zeppelin. We went through a period where we listened only to Springsteen for three months. Somehow we caught on to Julian Lennon’s debut album and played that endlessly. Journey. Queen.

We had the same taste in movies, locking on to Peter Sellers for a time and holding viewing parties of the Pink Panther series. To this day, the line, “Cato! That was a good freezer ploy!” still cracks us up. We talk of playing basketball and baseball, forging our friendship through sports from junior high through our years at P.V.

“We were playing Paradise one time, and after the first quarter we were in the huddle at the bench,” I suddenly recall, as if experiencing a case of repressed memory. “And you threw a towel at me. It hit me in the face and it was soaked.”

“Oh, yeah,” Doug says. “I had used it.”

“What a dick,” I say. “We used to do stuff like that all the time.”

As we finish up, Doug tells me he reminisces a lot about the old days, about our friendship, reanimated on this hot Chico afternoon.

“Let’s not make it so long between visits,” he says.

“We’ll do a home-and-home,” I say. “You and the wife come to Las Vegas.”

“Is it as beautiful as here?” he asks, as if expecting a particular answer.

The cool breeze off the Sac River wafts across the patio. “It’s a different sort of beautiful,” I say. “It’s not like this, but it is beautiful, and it is my home.”

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