I just spent a couple of incredible days at a family reunion. While it was technically a high school reunion, there is no doubt that these people are family. Let me explain why this is not your typical high school reunion.

I went to high school at Lakenheath High School at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, England. This school is one of many Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS) for children of American military, Department of Defense employees and civilians working for American firms overseas.

I am an Air Force brat and my family lived in Lakenheath for three years in the late 1970s. This was during the Cold War and U.S.A.F. members and their families rotated in and out of this base constantly. Old friends may leave or new friends may arrive at any time. The teachers and their children were a more constant presence as they generally stayed for much longer terms. I learned from the daughter of a teacher this weekend that her parents were at Lakenheath for twenty years.

I can’t speak for all Department of Defense school reunions, but our Lakenheath reunions are not the type most Americans would recognize. Because our school is physically in England, any reunion on site would be very expensive and probably have fairly low attendance. So our reunions are held throughout the United States on a rotating basis, generally in larger cities with airports nearby for easy travel. The organizers do this so that anyone who is interested should be close enough to attend at some point.

Another important difference from a standard high school reunion is that we don’t limit these shindigs to a particular graduating class. You don’t even need to have actually graduated from Lakenheath to be welcome. I moved at the end of my junior year, so graduated from another school, even though my heart was still with the people with whom I’d spent the previous three years. We had people this weekend who attended the elementary school or the junior high school rather than the high school. Doesn’t matter. All are welcome.

Lakenheath in the late 70s was a fairly sheltered and isolated society. We were an American community inside a foreign country, even though that country was mostly friendly and mostly spoke the same language. Actually, for some on the base it wasn’t even a foreign country as they had a British parent, usually their mum.

This relative isolation from the United States and the diversity of those within the community made us interdependent and tolerant. We were far away from our extended families and the friends we had left behind at the last base. This was the 70s so we didn’t have email. We had to write actual letters on paper to friends and family and then mail them and wait weeks for a reply. We didn’t have cell phones to allow constant contact. My family didn’t even have a house phone for the three years we were there. Most of us lived close enough to walk to see our friends, to school, to the discos at the youth center or in the Dayroom at the high school. We had very few American television shows, although I do remember an obsession many had with the original “Dallas”. We all remember British television and music. We shopped for clothing at the Base Exchange or through mail order catalogs. This was our shared experience.

I went to my first Lakenheath reunion last year, 32 years after I graduated from a different high school. When I arrived, I didn’t know a single person and there wasn’t anyone there from my graduating class. None of that mattered. Everyone was friendly and helpful and each person I met introduced me to another. We shared our stories not only about our time at Lakenheath, but about how the values we learned there shaped our lives. In no time at all it was clear that I was with my tribe, my family.

From my experience, these reunions are not so much about “remember that time we…” as they are about more generally remembering the bowling alley, the pizza place, the teachers, the theater, the dances. The overall experience is the point more than specific individual friends, although some of those in attendance actually did hang out together in high school. These places and these people, that experience, helped mold us into who we each became as adults.

So last weekend was my second Lakenheath reunion. It was again held in Hermosa Beach in California, at a quirky motel on the beach near the pier and the downtown area. Like last year we were very informal, allowing everyone to do their own thing without scheduling formal dinners or dances. We could, and did, spend time individually or in groups. I went on several long walks with new friends and was able to have wonderful one-on-one conversations. Of course, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t eating and dancing…

Like myself, there were others local to southern California, but many traveled farther to share the love. Represented were northern California, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Maine and probably a couple of other states that I’ve missed. We even had one person travel from France!

This year was different for me because I knew the feelings that would surround me when I arrived. This year I knew I would get lots of hugs and I would be spending time with people who understood me and accepted me anyway. Many who were here last year returned, but I also met a lot of new friends. And the same thing happened. You can pick almost any former stranger out of this crowd and immediately strike up a conversation about any of the many shared experiences or about what’s happening in our lives right now. While we may not always agree, we’re always heard and understood.

Finally, I’d like to extend my personal thanks to all who attended and made my world a more interesting place. To those who make the time and effort for the massive amount of organization required to make these parties look so effortless to the rest of us, you have my gratitude, my admiration for your skills, and the hope that you never get tired of gathering the family together.