- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 5, 2006

About 3,500 miles from their high school, more than a dozen former classmates from the Allied Forces Central Europe International School in the Netherlands meet in the bar at the Grand Hyatt Washington on a recent Friday night to kick off their 20-year reunion.

It’s a small group, just a handful of the 58 persons who graduated in 1986 from the American section of AFcent — a school in Brunssum, near Maastricht, Netherlands, for children of allied and NATO forces.

At AFcent, which since has been renamed AFnorth, for Allied Forces Northern Europe, the classmates say they were closer than close, sharing an unusual experience as American teens in Europe during the last decade of the Cold War.

Like most American teens, they played football and cheered at pep rallies, but they also went skiing together in Austria, competed in sports tournaments in Belgium and took road trips to rock concerts in Germany. Some AFcent alumni say school was the center of their lives.

Yet despite all they shared, some of these classmates haven’t seen each other since the end of their school days overseas. Self-described “military brats,” they came to AFcent from all over the country, and after graduation, they scattered. Without one place they all call home, getting together for a reunion is a challenge.

Scott Hirko of East Lansing, Mich., says that as far as he knows, the class of 1986, which got together in the District 10 years ago, was the first to attempt a reunion. Mr. Hirko and his identical twin, Rhett Hirko of Chicago, organized the class’s 10th- and 20th-year celebrations, relying heavily on an AFcent/AFnorth alumni Web site to track down classmates.

The Internet was invaluable “because we never would have found each other again,” says Jen Horan of Capitol Hill, who with Jane Jones Bates of Fort Collins, Colo., used the Internet to organize a reunion last year in Las Vegas for about 350 people who attended AFcent/AFnorth or its rival school, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe International School in Casteau, Belgium.

To figure out which American city would host this year’s gathering, the Hirkos conducted an Internet poll. The District won, edging out Chicago and Seattle.

Now, after about a year of planning, the group finally is back together for a weekend of re-connecting, featuring an outing to a Washington Nationals game and a special presentation by Donna Musil, director of “Brats: Our Journey Home,” the acclaimed documentary about children of military parents.

Although this is the class of 1986’s reunion, not all of the 18 in attendance graduated in 1986 or attended AFcent, a kindergarten-through-12th-grade school, long enough to graduate. Those details don’t seem to matter, as they have plenty to discuss.

The group settles in at high-top tables in the back of the bar, and Ms. Horan pulls school memorabilia, including yearbooks, a Dutch flag and a maroon-and-green AFcent wrestling jersey, out of a tote bag. The classmates devour burgers, drink beer and pore over the old yearbooks, laughing at the way they were.

“Look at that ridiculous suede suit,” says Mike Bavaria, who lives in the Washington area, pointing to a yearbook photo.

“We just pick right back up,” Mrs. Bates says, smiling.

The classmates tell stories about experiences only AFcent students would understand — getting their parents to drive them to bars and clubs (the teens could drink legally in Europe, but they couldn’t drive), eating french fries loaded with toppings, and sobbing at international airports when they left for college in America or their parents went back to the states.

Even stories about common American rites of passage — such as the prom — take an unusual twist.

Rhett Hirko says that after the AFcent prom, which was held in a castle, the students went out to bars in their tuxedos and formal gowns. The Dutch proprietors didn’t know what a prom was or what to make of the well-dressed group. They thought the teens had just gotten married, and they poured them free champagne all night.

(After the bars, the group went to a fair where the operators gave the “wedding party” extra time on the spinning rides. Mr. Hirko says he later threw up his free champagne.)

As the classmates swap stories throughout the evening, their section of the bar gets progressively louder. Mr. Hirko persuades the restaurant staff to play a mix CD he has made, and soon the music of Tears for Fears, the Eurythmics and Duran Duran fills the bar. Thelastsong on Mr. Hirko’s AFcent CD is Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”

On one bar table lies a photocopied issue of Lion Tales, the AFcent school newspaper, dated October 1985. It contains a story on school construction, a review of Billy Joel’s “Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II” and a travel story about Liechtenstein. (“Liechtenstein encompasses 60 square miles between Switzerland and Austria. Don’t let its size fool you … there is plenty to do here.”)

The paper also contains an editorial from a student who transferred to AFcent earlier that fall.

“First impression? Closeness between students,” Christine Anthony wrote. “I was told before I came here that everybody knows everybody else. But I didn’t realize how true that was.”

Two decades later, AFcent alumni still remark on their unusually strong bond.

“We shared more than most kids share,” says Mr. Bavaria, who adds that he keeps up with his AFcent classmates from seventh, eighth and ninth grade more than the students in his graduation class from Mount Vernon.

“You come back here, and there were cliques everywhere,” Mr. Bavaria says. “We were one big clique.”

He says it wasn’t unusual for seventh-graders to give seniors high fives in the halls. He doesn’t remember having bullies at AFcent; classmates were too much like family, he says.

“We very much stuck together as a military community,” Mrs. Bates says. “Everyone seemed to get along. We had to.”

The fact that all the students were military children and all were English speakers in a foreign country helped them connect, Mrs. Bates says.

Even Edna Perez of Austin, Texas, who “cried like crazy” when she found out she would be spending her senior year at AFcent, her third high school and first overseas school, says she found her place there.

When she arrived, Miss Perez says, she was petrified, but one year later, when the valedictorian addressed her graduating class, she told the audience, “I now have no regrets about being dragged kicking and screaming to the Netherlands.”

Today, the AFcent graduates say they value their high school experience abroad and the rare opportunities to re-connect with one another.

Sitting in the bar amid old friends, Mr. Bavaria smiles and says, “If we could transport ourselves back, we would.”

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