When the Astoria High School class of 1976 held its 35th reunion Saturday, the Fort George Brewery’s Lovell Building became a staging ground for long-separated life paths to unite once more. The low-key affair gave the former classmates a chance to laugh, catch up and wax sentimental with old friends.

“Ours was the Bicentennial class,” said Laura Johnson Parvi, of Astoria, who has orchestrated the last four reunions. “And here we are together again for Astoria’s Bicentennial.”

Every five years, Parvi does something different to commemorate the occasion. In the past, she’s made T-shirts, monographed golf balls, DVDs, updated yearbooks and even organized a raffle-based scholarship for Astoria High graduates.

This year, she created a class reunion Facebook page, which seemed to attract more alumni than usual to an odd-year reunion. Nearly 50 of the 220-member class attended, many with their spouses.

“The even-numbered years tend to be huge, but the odd-numbered years … not so much,” Parvi said.

Happy to attend

This was the first time Darcy Gimmestad, of Renton, Wash., chose to attend her class reunion. In high school, she was president of the Girls League and voted “most inspirational player” on the girls basketball team.

“I was kind of nervous that I wouldn’t recognize anyone, even though I was in school with many of these people from the first grade,” she said, glancing at the spread of gold-and-purple pom poms, old-fashioned yearbooks and assorted memorabilia imported from a bygone generation.

“Now that I’m here, I’m very happy I came.”

When so many years pass between greetings, friends remain frozen in one’s mind, and memories of them become time capsules of historical associations. In addition to America’s 200th birthday, 1976 was the year Fidel Castro became president of Cuba, Steve Jobs established Apple Corp., Hollywood gave us “Rocky” and “Taxi Driver,” and Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford in the U.S. presidential election.

The Cold War raged on and a gallon of gas cost 59 cents.

Returning home

For many attendees, the reunion was a bittersweet excursion into the past.

“Being an out-of-towner, I truly appreciate coming back home because everything is so familiar and beautiful, like when I was a child,” said Hilary Hope Jurgensen, of Vancouver, Wash. “My friends and I went everywhere in town. Tapiola Pool. The old fairgrounds. We could ride the Chessman ferry for a nickel back then.”

A handful of classmates chose to return to their home-town permanently after living elsewhere for a stretch.

“I just love the area. The river, the clam digging, the outdoor activities. When you’re in Astoria, you know you’re in Astoria,” said Scott Ames, who studied at the University of Oregon and lives in town. Ames was Boys Federation president and was voted “most outgoing” in high school.

Parvi estimates that 90 percent of her graduating class is dispersed throughout Oregon.

“Most of the people at this event are locals,” she said.

Diana Coryell, of Bend, is still close with the same tightly knit group of friends from high school, including Parvi.

“In many ways, we’re still very much who we were back then,” said Coryell, a two-time Miss Clatsop County winner (1976 and ’78) and founder of the Warrenton children’s center Coryell’s Crossing.

Changing times

The graduates of Astoria High may be the same as ever in some regards, but few of these graduates can overlook that Astoria itself has changed in the intervening 31/2 decades.

Don Patterson, of Warrenton, laments Astoria’s diminished portfolio of native businesses, and that the once stalwart fishing and timber industries have been eclipsed by a commerce that’s more “artsy” and tourism-minded.

“It’s great that we have all of this local culture, but you also need a lot of working-class people to make a town work. You need the canneries,” said Patterson, owner of the Astoria and Warrenton Mini Marts. He attended the reunion with his wife and high school sweetheart, Renay, who graduated from Astoria High in ’77.

“Astoria wasn’t a wealthy community when we were younger, but it was a working community,” Diana Coryell said. “With all the canneries on the waterfront, we were raised with a strong work ethic.”

Hundreds of young men and women took to the Columbia River during summer, laboring away the season as deckhands on commercial gillnetters and charter boats.

“There’s still a lot of fishing going on, but it’s not like it was back then,” said Tom Coryell, Diana’s husband. “And Bumble Bee Seafoods was still here, so that made a difference.”

Dinah Urell, of Astoria, vividly recalls living in a “cultural void” in the late ’70s. The hippie generation had long since flowered, and the rise of the yuppie trembled on the horizon.

“Our high school years were during a post-movement era, and we had many movements to step into,” said Urell, owner and editor of Hipfish Monthly, an alternative magazine of the Columbia Pacific region. “It was like we had reached enlightenment but didn’t know what to do with it.”

Revved up

And what did Astoria teens do in those days to fill that “cultural void”?

“‘Cruising the gut’ was pretty big,” said Tom Coryell.

Showing off their four-wheel drives and muscle cars from the late ’60s and early ’70s, teen drivers, new to the road, would cruise up and down Commercial Street and Duane Street, the small intestines of Astoria. Occasionally, they’d pick up a load of friends in the parking lot near Custard King, idle before the courthouse, and drag race between traffic lights while chatting and flirting and cheering themselves on.

“We’d often just go in circles,” Tom Corywell smiled.

And behind the high school stood an old-growth forest – which was cleared in the early ’90s to make way for Coast Guard housing – where the older kids rode motorcycles and the younger ones built forts.

Not all hobbies were positive

However, some high school memories, like “looping,” inspire not nostalgia but nausea.

Kids would tear down Walluski Loop or Youngs River Loop or the old logging roads, where there are no street lights, drink alcohol and chuck empty beer cans at road signs. Now and then, a vehicle would wind up in a drainage ditch.

“It was a more lenient time. If cops pulled you over, they’d just pour out your beer and make you drive back to town,” said Patterson. “It was stupid what we did back then. We believed we were invincible.”

Several members of the class of ’76 didn’t live to see graduation. And the unusually high death toll continues to mount. Thirty-nine of the 260 have died, many because of driving under the influence.

“We’ve had a lot of people from our class pass away from drinking and driving,” Parvi said. “In Astoria during the ’70s that’s what our entertainment was. Now there is more education in our schools about the dangers involved.”

And it’s all to the good that we no longer tolerate that kind of behavior, Diana Coryell said.

“Now the high school holds clean ’n’ sober all-night parties so that students don’t feel the need to have keggers in the woods,” she said.

She is grateful for having mentors in high school who helped build her self-esteem and gave her focus, like gym teacher Max Bigby and yearbook teacher Michael Foster

“These were men who took an interest in individual students and pushed us to realize our potential,” she said. “I am who I am in large part because of them.”

Laid back

Patterson, who has been to every reunion, is still amazed by his friends’ collection of dusty memories.

“Because of my background with these people, I know so much about them, and they know so much about me,” he said. “I mean, even though we graduated 35 years ago, the conversation picks right up again, and we can just laugh about who we once were.”

Urell can’t recall a more “laid back and friendly” class reunion.

“The snobbery of the cliques has faded, and all the pretenses have been let down,” she said. “But our class has always had a lot of unity, and that’s probably because it was so small. I don’t know how much class unity you can have in big-city schools with classes of 400 or 500 students.”

Ken “Ernie” Aiken, of Gresham, said it’s always been that way.

“Our class is really close, you know? We’re almost like family,” said Aiken, who was voted “most-easy going” in high school and will be moving back to Astoria within the next few weeks.

By now, the reunion regulars have stopped comparing life stories, Parvi said.

“At this point, nobody really cares if you’re bald or fat or poor anymore,” she said. “They just care about you and want to see how you’re doing.”

And as the lives of the Astoria High alumni march onward, the years and the class reunions that punctuate them seem to fall closer together, slowly collapsing in time like the bellows of an accordion.

“We used to get together and exchange our kids’ pictures. Now we’re exchanging our grandkids’ pictures” said Doug McCall, of Olney, husband of ’76 alumna Kathy Hyde McCall. “You wonder where the time goes.”